Scratch one flat top!

Oregon freeway fighters chalk up a key victory—but the fight continues

On June 26, the Oregon Department of Transportation finally bowed to reality that it simply lacks the funds to pay for a seven-mile long widening of I-205 just outside of Portland.

Predictably, ODOT conceded defeat in the most oblique possible terms; the I-205 project isn’t dead, its officially just “indefinitely postponed.”  This, in exactly the same way that the White Star Lines could still describe the arrival of RMS Titanic as “indefinitely postponed.”

Opposition to the project was led by No More Freeways, a grassroots Portland group fighting billions of dollars of freeway widening projects being pushed by ODOT.  No More Freeways filed detailed objections and critiques of the project technical work in comments on its Environmental Assessment. In addition, NMF’s community members submitted over 300 comments in opposition to the I-205 expansion during the public comment period last spring, including technical comments pointing out the explicit violation of federal environmental protection law. 

ODOT’s proposed I-205 expansion was listed as one of the worst transportation projects in the country in USPIRG’s “Highway Boondoggles” report in 2022. 

In a prepared statement, No More Freeways co-founder Chris Smith said:

“No More Freeways is delighted to learn that the Oregon Department of Transportation proposes indefinitely postponing expansion of Interstate 205 even as the agency acknowledges they simply do not have a path forward to fund the now $1.9 billion Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion. 

These are both massive victories for any Oregonian who enjoys clean air, safer streets, a hospitable planet, and fiscal responsibility from their state government. Now more than ever, No More Freeways continues to insist that ODOT conduct a thorough Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion that studies alternatives to expensive freeway expansion that reduce congestion while bringing clean air and justice to the Albina neighborhood.”

This decision saves Oregon taxpayers more than $400 million that would otherwise be spent on this highway widening project.

Scratch one flat top

In May of 1942, in the darkest days of World War II, American naval aviators struck the first blow agains the previously un-beaten Japanese Navy at the Battle of Coral Sea.  American dive-bombers, led by Lieutenant Commander Robert Dixon, attacked and sank the aircraft carrier Shoho; Dixon famously signaled “Scratch one flattop,” which subsequently became a rallying cry for Allied forces.

We can only hope that this first small victory will signal a turning of the tide in the battle against wasteful and counterproductive highway expansion projects.  Oregon DOT continues to maintain the fiction that its now-$1.9 billion Rose Quarter project is still alive, but it too, will have to yield to the fiscal reality that the highway department is essentially broke and doesn’t have the resources to maintain the roads it currently has, much less build enormously expensive new ones.


Carmageddon does a no show, again (Philadelphia edition)

On Sunday June 11, a tanker truck caught fire on I-95 and the intense heat caused a section of the freeway to collapse.  I-95 is one of the nation’s principal north-south connections, and carries 160,000 vehicles per day.  It’s expected that repairs to the roadway could take months.

What would commuters and travelers do without this vital chunk of roadway?  Surely, we’re headed for gridlock and carmageddon!

But on Monday morning, despite some localized delays, pretty much nothing out of the ordinary happened.  Local TV station NBC10’s chyron shouted “COMMUTER CHAOS,” but their reporter actually found that traffic was mostly, moving steadily:

With the start of the workweek, following the collapse and closure of one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares, commuters on Monday seemed to handle the issue caused by the fiery collapse of a section of Interstate 95 fairly well.

Even as the about 160,000 vehicles that are estimated to drive along I-95 on any given weekday have had to find an alternate route due to the roadway’s collapse, traffic was moving relatively steadily.

While there were reports of slowdowns citywide, at the start of rush hour at about 7 a.m., the longest delay at the time was about 29 minutes for those headed eastbound along I-476 toward I-676.

Here’s what Monday morning traffic looked like according to Google Maps (h/t to tweet from Daniel Trubman)

Traffic in Philadelphia, Monday June 12, 2023. (Google Maps).

and for comparison, here’s what a typical Monday morning looks like, according to Google’s historical data.  If anything, overall traffic seems to be moving with more alacrity that on a typical Monday, despite a portion of I-95 being closed.

Philadelphia Traffic on a Typical Monday Morning (9AM)

This isn’t an unusual occurrence.  The same scenario is repeated, time and again, whenever a major section of roadway is removed from service, whether by construction, repair, or as a result of crashes.  Just ask Los Angeles, or Seattle, or Atlanta, or Minneapolis, or Portland.  In every one of these cities, a key roadway was taken out of service for days, weeks or months.  In every one of these cities, highway departments predicted calamitous delays and gridlock.  And in every one of these cities, pretty much nothing happened.  Traffic “just disappeared” and driving conditions “weren’t so horrible” and in several cases, congestion was less than usual.

The lesson here is that traffic is not an inalterable and irreducible quantity dictated by nature, its actually very dynamic and elastic.  People readily change their travel behavior in response to the availability of road capacity.  That’s the essential insight behind the science of “induced demand“–the observation that newly expanded roadways quickly fill to capacity.  And this is its mirror image:  “traffic evaporation.”

Many of the trips on our roadway are discretionary.  We can choose to take them at other times, take other routes, combine or forego trips, choose new destinations, or travel by other modes.  The traffic we observe at any point in time is not a fixed and inexorable amount that must be “served” but is simply the behavioral response of humans to the set of transportation choices available to them.

The repeated failure of these predicted “carmageddons” to ever occur is powerful evidence that the key tenet of highway planning is fundamentally flawed.  Highway departments claim that if we don’t build more roadways, traffic and congestion will increase without limit and we’ll face hours and hours of delay.  In reality, that never happens because people adapt their travel behavior to the available transportation system.  Widening roads in an effort to reduce congestion isn’t simply futile, its counterproductive.  More capacity generates more travel, more sprawl, more pollution, and ultimately more congestion.  It’s time to get off this treadmill.


Getting prices right to improve urban transportation

City Observatory is pleased to publish this guest commentary from Miriam Pinski.

With the needed federal environmental approvals in hand, New York looks set to be the first American city to implement congestion pricing.  This may be a watershed moment in transportation policy:  if it can make it there, it can make it anywhere.  Other cities, including Los Angeles may be ready to follow suit.  Frankly, congestion pricing is long overdue, and done correctly can make a world of difference to cities. 

The underlying problem with urban transportation is that we in the US underprice driving. As a result, our roads are clogged, our air polluted, and our streets dangerous. 

Congestion prices can help solve those problems. A price is a signal wrapped in an incentive. Prices  signal to drivers that by taking the freeway onramp at a popular hour they’re about to slow everyone else on the road down. It also gives drivers a reason to reconsider their trip–an incentive for them to wait for traffic to die down, or take a different route, or maybe shift to biking or transit. 

Congestion prices make drivers pay for the time costs they impose on others. But pricing is hard, politically, and delay is just one cost that driving imposes. Is there a way to  consider all the ways driving costs – and benefits – society? And to use that information to guide our transportation policy, even if we don’t have the political will to price? 

There’s one city in the world that is doing just that: Copenhagen. 

Copenhagen doesn’t have pricing. Even in Denmark, road pricing is unpopular. The government twice rejected it.  But the city tries, as best it can, to put a value on the various positive and negative externalities from different travel modes, and to use those modes in its transportation planning. 

Assigning a value to the various impacts of any travel mode is imperfect at best, controversial and wildly inaccurate at worst. Some externalities are hard to quantify. Having to put a value on a crash, or premature deaths from pollution, makes people squirm.

The city also has to quantify the impacts that a driving trip today has in the future. Time horizons matter. Calculating social costs and benefits can’t just include the immediate impacts, but the discounted future costs and benefits as well. Polluted air today might mean premature births half a year later, and lower test scores for those children a decade after that. 

Our understanding of what those current and future impacts changes the more we learn about them. Copenhagen continually revisits its prior assumptions and revises its calculations. Fuel and energy costs fluctuate, taxes and subsidies get added and subtracted, people’s travel preferences and options change, as does our knowledge of the costs of different pollutants. The city selected a wide range of values (see the table below, from this 2015 study by Stefan Gössling and Andy S. Choi, for the indicators and how they measure them to compare driving and biking): 

These data get turned into numbers. You can see the results below. Added up, the relative benefits of car versus bike improvements suddenly weigh much more towards the latter. What is immediately clear is how few costs individual drivers incur, and how many they impose on everyone else.

Most of the social costs of driving are canceled out by taxes. Even still, they remain expensive. Every kilometer traversed by car costs society €0.50, and every kilometer cycled benefits society €0.16. The total costs of biking are still positive (a puny €0.08), but that’s mainly because they cost cyclists time. 

Copenhagen’s cost/benefit measure makes clear that driving really is quite expensive, for the individual and for society. The costs are just spread out. And while the costs of driving are only increasing over time, cycling costs seem to be declining

The biggest personal cost of bikes is time, followed by personal and social costs of accidents. That suggests an obvious policy course: the safe and connected networks. It’s no accident that Copenhagen is one of the world’s bike capitals. 

Getting prices right will move US cities closer to Copenhagen

Politics are always difficult. Copenhagen  did, however, establish a framework that makes it much harder to oppose projects that prioritize biking over driving. Copenhagen managed this by first forming a political consensus around the parameters, and then going forward with the analysis. Consensus comes easier when everyone first agrees on the process, and lets the outcomes flow.  

Maybe this seems impossible in the US. But there are many ways to get some science back into transportation planning; pricing when it is feasible, a realistic look at costs and benefits when it isn’t. And none of this means that everyone needs to stop driving. 

We don’t need to become Copenhagen to enjoy a safer, more balanced modal future. The idea that Americans require an entire cultural shift to reduce our dependence on driving leaves a lot of potential on the table. Congestion isn’t linear, and neither are its spillover effects on public health. By just taking a few drivers off the road, we can avoid complete gridlock and eliminate some of the worst externalities. It’s the last few people that enter the road that compound problems of noise, pollution and delay. The upside is that not everyone needs to stop driving for society to enjoy less trafficked streets. 

While we don’t need a revolution, we can take a lesson from Copenhagen. If we stopped underestimating and hiding the social costs of car ownership, our transportation policies in the US would be less warped.  The advent of congestion pricing could help us develop a useful new perspective on transportation that will lead to more just, sustainable and productive cities.


Miriam Pinski studies transportation and land use policy. Her research focuses on improving mobility among disadvantaged populations, and on making streets safer. She holds a doctorate in urban planning from UCLA, and is currently a research analyst at the Shared-Use Mobility Center. She is also writing a book about the history of the driver’s license. You can find her on Twitter @mirijulip or by email (


What new computer renderings really show about the IBR

The Interstate Bridge Project has released—after years of delay—computer graphic renderings showing possible designs for a new I-5 bridge between Vancouver and Portland.  But what they show is a project in real trouble.  And they also conceal significant flaws, including a likely violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.  Here’s what they really show:

  • IBR is on the verge of junking the “double-decker” design its pursued for years.
  • It is reviving a single decker design that will be 100 feet wider than the “locally preferred alternative” it got approved  a year ago.
  • The single deck design is an admission that critics were right about the IBR design having excessively steep grades.
  • The single deck design has significant environmental impacts that haven’t been addressed in the current review process; The two states ruled out a single deck design 15 years ago because it had greater impacts on the river and adjacent property.
  • IBR’s renderings are carefully edited to conceal the true scale of the bridge, and hide impacts on downtown Vancouver and Hayden Island.
  • IBR has blocked public access to the 3D models used to produce these renderings, and refused to produce the “CEVP” document that addressed the problems with the excessive grades due to the double-deck design.
  • The fact the IBR is totally changing the bridge design shows there’s no obstacle to making major changes to this project at this point.

The actual appearance of the proposed $7.5 billion Interstate Bridge Replacement project has been a carefully guarded secret. IBR has finally produced renderings of what the bridge might look like, and they conceal more than they reveal.  All of the renderings are shown from a distant vantage point—probably a mile or so away from the actual bridge—making it look tiny.  And the renderings don’t show how much larger the proposed new bridges are than the existing bridge.  The renderings are also carefully crafted so you can’t tell how tall the bridge will be in relation to the buildings in downtown Vancouver (it will be taller than most of them), nor does it show a lengthy elevated viaduct that will tower over most of Hayden Island. What the renderings do show is that IBR is now almost fully committed to a single-level bridge design.  Whereas prior renderings never showed a single-level bridge, five of the six designs presented on the IBR website are single-level bridges, and only one is the double-decker design the IBR has been pushing for more than a decade.


And none of these renderings show the actual width of either the single- or double-deck versions.  Other ODOT documents—not included with the renderings—show the singe-deck designs will be more than 270 feet wide—nearly as wide as a football field is long.  We know that IBR has developed a sophisticated 3D model—a “digital twin” of the project.  IBR consultants bragged about the state-of-the-art detail of the model in a presentation to a professional group in Seattle earlier this year, but said they couldn’t share the illustrations, because:

 “There is a very detailed 3D model. I was going to try and show it . . . It’s very, very, it’s kept under wraps quite a bit, and I think it’s because of their experience with the first round, trying to tread carefully.” 

We filed a public records request with WSDOT and in response, they claimed that the only “model” was a rendering released in January 20, 2022, and that they are ignorant of this work—even though contractor WSP and software provider Bentley prominently tout this “digital twin” work for IBR on their websites.  And obviously, IBR had this 3D model in place to produce the renderings it released on May 25.  It’s plain that ODOT and WSDOT don’t want people to see what they are planning to build.

Junking the double decker design

What these new renderings signify is  that the Oregon and Washington DOTs are junking the double-decker design they’ve been pushing for the Interstate Bridge Replacement for more than a decade, and instead are planning a much wider single-level bridge.

Since 2008, ODOT and WSDOT have only been looking at a pair of double-decker bridges to replace the existing I-5 crossing.  Each of these bridges would be about 90 feet wide, with room for six highway lanes on the top deck of each bridge, and provision for light rail, bikes and pedestrians on lower levels.

As part of the project’s draft environmental impact statement, the two highway departments considered, and rejected, a single-level design, because it would have had greater impacts on the river (more piers in the river, more cover over the river, and greater visual impacts).  Only the double-decker design was advanced to the Final Environmental Impact Statement, adopted in 2011.

Now, suddenly, IBR is pushing a slew of single-level designs.  We say “suddenly” because IBR made no mention of a single level option until February of 2023—almost a year after it asked all of its local partners to sign off on a “Modified Locally Preferred Alternative” that consisted solely of the double decker bridge.

As we wrote in February, this sudden change of heart vindicates one of the key criticisms of the IBR design—that its high fixed span necessitates very steep grades, both for the mainline highway section, and especially for the bridge’s off-ramps.  The grade for the mainline would be as much as 3.99 percent—well in excess of the DOT’s own guidelines for freeway grades, and among the steepest interstate bridges in the nation.  The grades on on- and off-ramps would be even higher, as much as 6-7 percent.  Notably, each of the single-level designs allow the roadway to be set much closer to the river, enabling shorter structures and shallower grades.

The key factors increasing the grades of the highway section of the project is the combination of its high river clearance (the IBR design calls for a 116′ navigation clearance underneath the bridge), and the proposed double-decker design (with the top highway deck being elevated about 35 feet above the lower transit/active transportation deck).

A Bridge Too Steep and the Secret CEVP Report

What prompted the sudden inclusion of the single deck design?  As we wrote in February, the key intervening event was a project evaluation called the “Cost Estimate Validation Process” or CEVP, which is designed to identify and assess risks to project costs and completion. It seems highly likely that this review identified the steep grades on the bridge and approaches as a cost, schedule and approval risk.  That’s almost undoubtedly what prompted the sudden interest in the single-deck design, after years of exclusion.  We say “almost undoubtedly” because IBR has refused to release the CEVP analysis.  When we first asked, in December 2022 for the CEVP, WSDOT claimed that “no such document exists.”  Subsequently it has released only a cursory and uninformative one-page summary of the CEVP, even though it has subsequently reported that the CEVP consisted of creating a “risk register” that identified more than 200 risks.

A QRA [quantitative risk assessment] was performed for the IBR program based on CEVP methodology. The objectives of the QRA were to provide independent review of program cost and schedule estimates and to quantify the uncertainty and risk associated with those estimates. A risk assessment workshop was held October  10 to 14, 2022, and was attended by IBR program team members, partners, and subject matter experts (SMEs) from WSDOT, ODOT, local agency partners, and industry. A risk register was developed for the program; the register identified specific risks (threats and opportunities) to the program cost and schedule. A total of 201 risks were identified, of which 121 were determined to be significant. Risks were characterized and quantified by consensus (i.e., collective professional judgment) of the SMEs assembled for the workshop.
Financial Plan, March 2023, page 4-2 to 4-3,

It’s not unusual for agency’s to make some tweaks to a project once it has gone through the environmental review process, but the usual claim that the DOTs make is that these tweaks are okay as long as they don’t increase the project’s “footprint.”  That’s a legally dubious assertion, but, in this case, shifting to a single level bridge actually increases the project’s literal footprint by over 50 percent:  According to ODOT’s own estimates, the double-decker bridge design would be about 173 feet wide, while the single-level bridge would be about 272 feet wide.

For four years, the Oregon and Washington highway departments have been pushing a revival of the failed multi-billion dollar I-5 Columbia River Crossing.  Their key sales pitch is that the size and design of the project can’t vary in any meaningful way from the project’s decade-old record of decision, for fear of delaying construction or losing federal funding.

Far from being a minor change, this represents the revival of an alternative design that was ruled out more than a decade ago.  It also shows that the IBR project is effectively conceding that its critics, who’ve alleged that its double-decker “modified locally preferred alternative” has a serious safety and cost problem due to its excessive grade and elevated off-ramps.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it shows that warnings that major changes couldn’t be made to the project out of a fear of delays were simply baseless manipulation—a familiar highway department tactic.

Resurrecting a discarded 15-year old alternative

When he first revealed that IBR was considering a single level design in February of 2023, IBR administrator Greg Johnson made a point of claiming that the single-level design isn’t “new.”  It isn’t, it’s quite old, and to have listened to the Oregon and Washington transportation departments, it’s so old that it’s been dead and buried for almost 15 years.

The last official ODOT and WSDOT document featuring a single level crossing design was nearly 15 years ago:  the 2008 Draft Environmental Impact Statement.  It proposed two possible designs for replacement bridges for the current I-5, a pair of side-by-side double-decker bridges (which were chosen as the preferred design), and a trio of single-level bridges, as shown here.

The project’s Final Environmental Impact Statement, issued in 2011, abandoned the single-level option, and chose to proceed only with a pair of double-decker bridges (with transit and bike-ped access placed on the lower level of each structure).  Also:  Notice that the Final Environmental Impacts Statement omitted the notations showing the actual width of the proposed structures—part of an effort to conceal the fact that the bridges would be build wide enough to accommodate 12 full lanes of traffic.


The Final Environmental Impact Statement made a strong series of findings rejecting the single-level three-bridge design, because it would have more in-river impacts, a larger surface area with more runoff, and would have larger visual impact.  [CRC FEIS, Page 2-83]

The single-level design is considerably wider than the two-bridge double-decker design, as shown in this 2007 rendering prepared by IBR.

it’s back. An even wider bridge across the Columbia.


It’s not too late to make fundamental changes to the plan

Greg Johnson has cried “wolf” about making serious changes to the IBR project, even as its budget has ballooned by 54 percent in a little over two years, to a total price tag of as much as $7.5 billion.  But this latest—and very late—change to the project design is an indication that it’s not too late to fix the fatal flaws in this project.  Right now the fatal flaws revolve around its bloated design and price.  The reason the project is so expensive has little to do with the bridge structure itself, but rather the extravagant plans of ODOT and WSDOT to widen I-5 for miles on either side of the Columbia River, and rebuild, at much greater expense than the bridge itself, seven different freeway interchanges.  If this were simply a bridge replacement—as its name claims—the project would be vastly simpler, less expensive, and likely not controversial.

For the past four years, IBR has maintained it’s far too late to make any design changes to the IBR project.  Ever since he took the job of IBR administrator Greg Johnson has been warning elected officials not to make any significant changes to the project design included in the 2011 FEIS for fear of delaying it further.  An immersed tunnel?  More consideration for climate?  A lift-span?  A narrower freeway?  None of these can even be studied, or advanced into the environmental review process, for fear that it will cause some additional delay.

But now, what about that inviolable “Modified Locally Preferred Alternative” that you couldn’t touch in any way without endangering the project’s schedule and jeopardizing federal funding?  Well, IBR staff have unilaterally decided it won’t actually work, and their pushing ahead with an entirely new and much wider design, any trying to shoehorn it into the federal environmental review process without honestly disclosing the major changes they’ve made.

More than six months after theoretically getting buy-off from all of the project’s eight partners for this untouchable design, and spending tens of millions of dollars defining the “modified locally preferred alternative,” Johnson has suddenly decided that he can unilaterally inject back into the discussion an alternative that the project ruled out more than a decade ago. And make no mistake, changing from double-decker bridges to a single level crossing has significant impacts.  It almost certainly means more piers in the Columbia River, and more real estate disruption, particularly on the steadily redeveloping Vancouver waterfront.

For the record this isn’t the first, or even the second, time the engineers at ODOT and WSDOT have screwed up the design of the proposed river crossing.  In 2010, an Independent Review Panel appointed by Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski and Washington Governor Chris Gregoire found that the “open web” design the agencies proposed was “unbuildable.”  It was replaced by the double-decker truss.  And then, in 2011, the bridge had to be re-designed again to achieve a river clearance of 116 feet, because the two highway departments couldn’t bludgeon the Coast Guard into accepting their preferred 95 foot clearance.  Both these engineering errors delayed the project and raised its cost—something you’ll never hear ODOT and WSDOT admit.

Why now? 

The problems with the bridge grade were first identified more than a decade ago, when the Coast Guard objections let ODOT and WSDOT to hastily redesign the Columbia River Crossing to provide a 116-foot navigation clearance (21 feet higher than what the two highway agencies were then planning).  ODOT and WSDOT never resolved the questions that were raised about the project’s excessive grade, particularly concerns that steep bridge grades would cause large trucks to slow and impede traffic flow.  Following Johnson’s insistent demand that no changes be made to the project defined in the Columbia River Crossing FEIS, IBR has stuck to the steep, double-deck design, never questioning the grade.

But late last year, IBR has had to produce a new cost estimate.  Embarrassingly, the cost of the IBR project has ballooned by 54 percent to nearly $7.5 billion.  To deflect criticism about higher costs, IBR officials testified in December that the project was also subjected to a “Cost Estimate Validation Process,” or CEVP, which the state DOTs advertised as a sure-fire cure for future cost escalation.  As we pointed out at City Observatory, no documentation exists for that claimed CEVP.  The Washington Department of Transportation responded to a public records request for copies of the CEVP by saying “no documents exist.”  Because the agencies have shrouded this process in secrecy we can’t say for sure, but it seems likely that a CEVP meeting likely identified the bridge grade, and expense of elevated interchanges as major cost, schedule and design risks to the project.  That would explain why, more than six months after locking down a double-decker “modified locally preferred alternative,” that Johnson and the IBR team are suddenly reviving the discarded single-level bridge plan.

IBR’s Stacked Highway Bridge Alternative (2021)

For reference, we’re providing details of the alternative designs that have been considered by the IBR in the past decade.  As noted above, the last time any of the project’s documents mentioned a single-level crossing was in the 2008 Draft Environmental Impact Statement.  Most recently, in October 2021, when it last listed the alternative bridge designs it was studying, IBR made absolutely no mention of a “single-level bridge”.  In fact, the only alternative design they showed was pretty much the opposite:  a single and larger stacked bridge, with highway lanes on the upper and lower levels of the double-decker bridge, and with transit and bike-pedestrian routes cantilevered on the sides of the lower level of the double decker.  And now, when it comes time to produce actual renderings, the single bridge stacked alignment has simply disappeared without a trace.


The Week Observed, June 30, 2023

What City Observatory did this week

Scratch one flat top!  That was the famous cry of US Naval aviators, when, early in World War II they chalked up their first victory, sinking the Japanese aircraft carrier Shoho.  Portland’s freeway fighters, who’ve been battling for years against the multi-billion dollar expansion plans of the Oregon Department of Transportation marked their first big victory this week, as ODOT cancelled plans for the $450 million I-205 freeway widening south of Portland.  ODOT staff finally concede what freeway opponents have been saying for years:  the agency simply can’t afford the project, and besides, it won’t work to reduce congestion.

The I-205 Phase 2 project is dead—although in bureaucratic parlance it’s merely “indefinitely postponed.”  Also in serious jeopardy is the I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway widening, a project whose cost has ballooned to $1.9 billion and for which Oregon DOT has no clearly identified source of funding.  Portland’s freeway fight will continue.

Must Read

Americans Understand Induced Travel, even if highway departments don’t.  Upton Sinclair’s  axiom “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it” holds with a vengeance for highway engineers and boosters. But most Americans, who aren’t in the thrall of the highway industrial complex, now recognize that round after expensive round of highway construction has done nothing to reduce congestion.  Transportation for America’s national survey asked a representative sample of Americans a battery of questions related to traffic, transportation, sustainability and public policy.  We want to highlight one key finding:  A clear majority of Americans now recognize that widening highways is a futile and costly approach to transportation.

About two-thirds of respondents agreed strongly or somewhat that highway expansion in ineffective in reducing traffic congestion.  More than three fifths of respondents agreed that highway expansion is a waste of taxpayer money.  Our friends and Seattle’s Urbanist have a terrific write up of the report as well.

Rule of the Road:  Priority for Pedestrians.  Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has made prodigious strides in re-shaping transport in Paris. As she says:

Faced with the climate emergency, we are adapting Paris and radically changing the way we get around. Parisians have understood this well! In record time, they massively appropriated the cycle paths. The results are there: in 10 years, car traffic has decreased by 40%, and pollution by 45%. Paris now has more than 1,120 km of cycle paths, compared to 200 km in 2001.

That’s led to some complaints that the city has become more challenging for those on foot.  Hidalgo is unequivocal:  Priorite absolue pour les pietons:  Absolute priority for pedestrians.  The city has announced new measures to create pedestrian zones around schools, to better enforce traffic laws protecting pedestrians, and eliminate cycling on sidewalks.

Making cities work well requires a radical re-thinking of transportation priorities.  Bold leaders like Paris are showing that positive change is possible.

New Knowledge

More evidence for induced travel.  Add another study to the growing pile of literature documenting the phenomenon of induced travel—widening roads, ostensibly to reduce congestion, simply encourages more people to travel on the expanded roadway.  This latest evidence comes from England, where motorway authorities widened a stretch of the key M25 roadway from three lanes in each direction to four by allowing vehicles to drive on the road’s paved shoulder.

A benefit-cost analysis prepared for the project predicted that it would produce significant benefits to business and commuter travel by speeding traffic and reducing travel times.  But instead, as always happens, the expanded roadway simply attracted more trips.   As the study concludes:

. . . the economic benefits to longer distance business users anticipated from road widening are negated by the use made of the increased capacity by local road users for short trips of less economic value.

The study’s author also concludes that the induced travel effect is accelerated by the availability of real time traffic information and “sat-nav”—satellite navigation—systems in cars.  The availability of additional space and (temporarily) faster routes, prompts these systems to route more vehicles onto the expanded roadway.

The study has several important implications.  First, the travel time “benefits” counted in benefit-cost studies used to justify widening projects are non-existent and illusory.  Accurate benefit-cost analyses would show expanded roadways are a value-destroying proposition.  Second, you can’t alleviate congestion by providing more roadway capacity:  More roads simply prompt more driving, meaning more pollution and no reduction in congestion.

David Metz, “Digital navigation negates the economic benefits of road widening: The case of the M1 motorway,” Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, Volume 174, 2023, 103749,,

(hat tip to @DavidZipper).

In the news

City Observatory Director Joe Cortright was nominated as one of Planetizen’s “most influential urbanists” for 2023.  You can see the entire list of nominees and register your votes here.


The Week Observed, June 23, 2023

What City Observatory did this week

We took the week off to celebrate the Summer Solstice and gorge on Hood strawberries!

We’ll be back next week.

Must Read

The amazing non-appearance of Carmageddon.  Echoing the point we made a City Observatory in the days—Carmageddon does a no-show in Philly —after the I-95 freeway closure in Philadelphia, Aaron Gordon of Vice points out that traffic quickly adapted to the decline in freeway capacity.  Contrary to folk beliefs (cherished and nurtured by highway engineers)  there was no chaos, gridlock or mayhem.  Commuters, through traffic, and freight movement quickly adjusted travel patterns and times, and life proceeded just as before.  

Gordon cites detailed analyses by traffic monitoring firms confirming what our early look at Google traffic maps showed:  Travel times and delays post-shutdown were almost identical to pre-crash conditions.  As Gordon writes:

Almost two weeks after the collapse, the bridge still isn’t fixed—although it will supposedly re-open this weekend in record time—but it is clear that those dire predictions did not come to pass. Initial surges in traffic in the Philadelphia area eased by the end of the week, according to data collected by HERE Technologies and Inrix, two transportation and mapping companies that use vehicle data to measure traffic flows.

Apocalyptic gridlock did not ensnare the Philadelphia area. Truck traffic did not come to a halt. In fact, more people rode the train or took alternate routes and life marched on. A few key highway junctions are a bit slower than they were two weeks ago and traffic in the immediate area of the collapse remains thick. . . . whether it’s people using public transit, workers working remotely, drivers figuring out better alternate routes, the congestion in the entire region returned to pretty close to normal by the end of this past week.

As we wrote a week ago:  this “traffic evaporation” reflects the rapid and resilient behavioral response to changes in road capacity, a fact denied by the premises of the traffic models that are routinely used to justify expensive and ineffective road widening projects.

Work from Home increased the demand for housing.  At Axios, Felix Salmon makes an important point:  Now that we’re spending less time in commercial office space, people are likely to be demanding more “home office” space.  As Salmon explains:

Take New York City as an example. If you look at square feet per resident and per employee in the Big Apple, the average New York household fits about 2.5 people into about 1,000 square feet. If one of those people has access to an external office, that provides another 150 square feet of space for working in.  When that person works from home, the household is going to feel more cramped than usual unless it expands by about 150 square feet. If the family demands 150 more square feet, that’s a substantial increase in demand, at 15%.

This is likely to have important implications for housing demand in cities.  If an urban household needs room for both its domestic/residential needs, plus additional space for a separate home office, we can expect people to spend more on housing (i.e. shifting their commuter savings to buying more residential space).  This will likely reduce average occupancy–for example, two people renting a three bedroom apartment to keep one room as an office.  This higher housing demand, in turn, would show up as both higher rents and lower total population.

New Knowledge

Unsafe speeds for pedestrians.  New data shows that 2022 was the deadliest year for pedestrians in the US in decades. Speed is a leading factor in pedestrian deaths, and new data from Streetlight data shows a stark contrast in the speeds that pedestrians are exposed to in different cities across the US.

Streetlight has calculated the average speeds on roadways with more than 200 pedestrians per day for each of the nation’s 30 largest cities. The contrast between the best and worst performing cities is dramatic.  In New York, average speeds on pedestrian streets exceed 35 miles per hour on only 1 percent of streets.  In Phoenix, 65 percent of all these pedestrian frequented streets had speeds average speeds of 35 miles per hour or more.

In all nine cities have less than 10 percent of their pedestrian-frequented roads with average speeds of 35 miles or more, while sixteen of the top 30 have a third or more of all such roads with average speeds over 35 miles per hour.  In three cities:  Phoenix, Jacksonville and Las Vegas, half or more of  pedestrian frequented streets have average speeds of 35 miles per hour ore more.

The data are a clear reflection of urbanity and street design.  Cities with dense vibrant centers (New York, Washington, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago) have relatively few pedestrians exposed to the most dangerous streets.  In contrast, the sprawling cities of the sunbelt, where many streets are wide, multi-lane arterials, expose more pedestrians to dangerous speeding traffic.

There’s also a strong correlation between cities that score well on Streetlight’s “Safe Speed” Index, and the Pedestrian Death Rate, tabulated by Transportation for America.

Cities that optimize their land use and transportation networks to speed automobiles create the most dangerous conditions for pedestrians, cyclists and other vulnerable road users.

In the news

Thanks to Streets.MN for pointing their readers to our commentary on the amazing non-appearance of Carmaggedon in Philadelphia.

The Week Observed, June 16, 2023

What City Observatory did this week

Carmageddon does a no-show in Philly.  A tanker truck caught fire and the ensuing blaze caused a section of I-95 in Philadelphia to collapse.  This key roadway may be out of commission for months, and predictably, this led to predictions of “commuter chaos.”  But on Monday morning, traffic in Philadelphia was surprisingly . . . normal.

It’s yet another instance of traffic evaporation–when roadway capacity is suddenly reduced (by a disaster or construction project), travelers quickly adapt to the newly constrained roadway system.  This evaporation is the mirror image of “induced demand”–the tendency of newly widened roadways to fill up and become just as traffic clogged as before.  The lesson of these false carmageddons is that travel is much more dynamic and flexible than we imagine.

Must Read

Block that metaphor:  Stop saying micromobility.  In an incisive essay for Streetsblog, Sarah Risser questions our use of the term “micromobility” to describe bikes, e-bikes, scooters and other similarly sized modes of transport. In this case, the use of the diminutive effectively diminishes the seriousness of these modes of transport, and reinforces the notion that that there are “regular” or “normal” modes of transport (cars, trucks, SUVs), and that smaller, safer greener ways of getting around are just toys, or marginal and substandard  modes.

Right-sized or human scale: Not “Micro”.

This kind of subtle bias pervades much transportation policy debate (calling all crashes “accidents,” and the term “jay-walking”).  As Risser says:

SUVs, pick-up trucks, and passenger cars should not be the benchmark by which we judge the size of other forms of transit, and the term ‘micromobility’ encourages us to believe that they are. Instead, we should intentionally drop the preface “micro” in micromobility and start referring to bikes, scooters, and the human body simply as “mobility,” And we should also add an appropriately descriptive prefixes to ever-larger cars, SUVs and pick-up trucks: Maybe we could call them “oversized-mobility;” “space-hogging-mobility”; or better yet, “deadly-mobility.”

The words we use matter:  We shouldn’t inadvertently embrace and reinforce automobile dominance by using a term that marginalizes sustainable, human-scaled transport.

Will Minnesota live up to the promises of its new transport legislation? There’s some good news that’s come out of Minnesota, where the legislature adopted language injecting some sound climate protection policies into the state’s transportation investment laws.  Writing at StreetsMN, Alex Burns takes a closer look at the fine print, and points out, that while there’s progress, there’s a lot more work to do here.  Although the law requires an emissions analysis for new highway expansion projects, the bill essentially grandfathers everything that’s already in an adopted highway plan, which is bad enough, and could get worse if highway engineers amend those plans before the new laws take effect in 2025. Burns writes:

. . . the bill did add some important protections against highway expansion but they do not go far enough [it] requires MnDOT to assess the impacts of a project on state climate and vehicle miles traveled (VMT) goals and perform mitigation measures only if the project adds travel lanes. A project that reconstructs a freeway with the same number of lanes is exempt, even though it will likely mean 60-plus more years of greenhouse gas emissions (not to mention air pollution, noise and human carnage) over that project’s lifespan.

More to the point, the legislation still provides the bulk of state funding for roads and highways:  $7 billion of the $9 billion appropriated for transportation primarily or exclusively serves car and truck traffic.  As Brent Toderian frequently says:  show me your budget and I’ll show you your priorities.

Downtown offices may be struggling, but dense, mixed-use neighborhoods are flourishing.  Tracy Hadden Loh of the Brookings Institution’s Metro program has a thoughtful op-ed in the Los Angeles Times pushing back against the anti-urban “doom-loop” messaging that seems to dominate the media.  Citing Brookings’ analysis of Census data, she notes that residential neighborhoods in cities are seeing renewed growth.

people are enjoying walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods where they can both live and work, in contrast to the 20th century mode of cities and suburbs that rigidly separates work zones from other activities.

Pointing to a series of Los Angeles neighborhoods that are flourishing, Loh says

Why are some neighborhoods doing extraordinarily well? These are not the richest parts of L.A. Rather, they gather big, diverse collections of economic, social, physical, and civic assets in close proximity

The common narrative about cities implies that the only reason people live in or near cities is to be close to places of work.  The resilience of urban neighborhoods that offer a wide range of social, cultural, economic and consumption opportunities is evidence that cities are about much more than access to jobs.

In the news

StreetsblogUSA re-published our commentary on the “meh” of Carmaggedon in Philadelphia after the collapse of a section of I-95.

The Week Observed, June 9, 2023

What City Observatory did this week

Guest contributor Miriam Pinski observes that getting the prices right could produce dramatic improvements in how US transportation systems perform.  New York is on the verge of implementing congestion pricing, and other US cities are strongly considering similar policies.   Pricing turns out to be the cornerstone of encouraging widespread adoption of non-auto travel modes.

Around the world, the cities that we want to emulate in transportation have done a far better job at reflecting back to road users the social and environmental costs of their decisions.  That’s a key reason why leading cities, like Copenhagen are so successful at moving away from automobile dependence.


Must Read

Worthwhile Canadian perspective:  Electric cars are still cars, with almost all their attendant problems.  Just as in the US, Canada is subsidizing car makers to make electric cars, and subsidizing households to buy them.  The Globe and Mail‘s Eric Reguly points out that notwithstanding the emission reduction benefits of moving away from internal combustion, this policy doesn’t make a lot of sense if we’re trying to build more livable and sustainable communities.

EVs, and hybrid cars to a lesser extent, enjoy a global image that is entirely unjustified. The pitch – buy an EV and save the planet – is just nonsense.  Never mind that EVs are still cars that need to be parked. Their presence will still disfigure cities, pushing politicians and developers to build new parking lots, roads and highways to gratify the endless swarms of drivers.
Subsidizing electric cars is a choice, and in many respects a bad choice.  In Canada, the subsidies being given to car makers for battery plants approximates the rough cost of high speed rail linking Toronto, Montreal and Quebec, an investment that would dramatically change transportation patterns and reinforce urban areas.  But the car-centric view of transportation is allowing none of that.
The Biden Administration’s disappointing record on fixing racist highways.  The Biden Administration had one plenty to acknowledge the damage done by freeway construction in urban neighborhoods, and has talked a good game about rectifying the situation, but at critical junctures, its support has waivered.  Writing at Fast Company, Benjamin Schneider relates some of the problems that have arisen.
While the Biden Administration included $1 billion for a “Reconnecting Communities”program in highway funding, this represents just a  drop in the bucket compared to the need, and the program is already enormously oversubscribed.   The funding is hardly enough to offset six decades of damage from highway building, and it turns out that some states are using the program to “greenwash” otherwise harmful projects, including a massive freeway expansion in Austin that won a Reconnecting Communities grant to plan for a cap over a small portion of the road.

In the News

Strong Towns republished our commentary lampooning the obsession with technical fixes for transportation safety.

The Week Observed, June 2, 2023

What City Observatory did this week

What computer renderings really show about the Interstate Bridge Replacement Project:  It’s in trouble. The Interstate Bridge Project has released—after years of delay—computer graphic renderings showing possible designs for a new I-5 bridge between Vancouver and Portland.  But what they show is a project in real trouble.  And they also conceal significant flaws, including a likely violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.  Here’s what they really show:

  • IBR is on the verge of junking the “double-decker” design it’s pursued for years.
  • It is reviving a single decker design that will be 100 feet wider than the “locally preferred alternative” it got approved  a year ago.
  • The single deck design is an admission that critics were right about the IBR design having excessively steep grades.
  • The single deck design has significant environmental impacts that haven’t been addressed in the current review process; The two states ruled out a single deck design 15 years ago because it had greater impacts on the river and adjacent property.
  • IBR’s renderings are carefully edited to conceal the true scale of the bridge, and hide impacts on downtown Vancouver and Hayden Island.
  • IBR has blocked public access to the 3D models used to produce these renderings, and refused to produce the “CEVP” document that addressed the problems with the excessive grades due to the double-deck design.
  • The fact the IBR is totally changing the bridge design shows there’s no obstacle to making major changes to this project at this point.

Must Read

Economic development hinges on the ability to attract talent.  Richard Florida and his colleagues have prepared a new economic analysis for the state of Michigan.  It highlights many of the state’s strengths (it’s strong intellectual capacity and established manufacturing base in transportation), but importantly stresses the state’s long term economic success hinges on doing a better job of attracting talented workers.  The report–Michigan’s Great Inflection–contains some insightful information of interest to all states.

In particular, the report highlights which states are–and aren’t–doing a good job of attracting talented young workers.  And, although Michigan does a reasonably good job of hanging on to its own youth, it does very poorly in attracting young, well-educated workers from elsewhere.

The study acknowledges the importance of bolstering current industries and institutions, but emphasizes growing, retaining and attracting talent:

To ensure the long-run prosperity of its industries, communities, and people, Michigan must focus its economic development strategy on bolstering and aligning the capabilities of its leading corporations, universities, and startups in critical transformational technologies. As importantly, if not more so, the state must enhance its strategies for generating, retaining, and attracting the talent required to compete in this new economic environment.

A newspaper’s mea culpa for supporting a racist freeway project.  The Portland Oregonian has a fascinating and detailed retrospective on how its coverage of freeway construction and urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s reinforced and amplified the destruction of the city’s segregated Black Albina neighborhood.

The narrative relates how the newspaper paid scant attention to the dislocation of families and businesses by the construction of Portland’s Memorial Coliseum, the expansion of Emmanuel Hospital, and three major state highway construction projects, which collectively led to the demolition of hundreds of homes, and prolonged population and economic decline in Albina.

The state highway department, now the Oregon Department of Transportation, purchased it and other homes along the route and then offered them at auction, allowing bidders to salvage sinks, furnaces and fixtures before tearing down the houses.  The Oregonian covered one auction in 1961, noting that the state highway department sold 175 condemned homes for between $50 and $155 apiece. “Even the shrubbery is included,” The Oregonian wrote.  Former residents’ identities were not.

Ironically, even as this coverage appears in the local newspaper, the Oregon Departmetn of Trnasportation is proposing to spend $1.45 billion to widen Interstate 5 through the Albina neighborhood, further increasing traffic and pollution.  ODOT’s plan calls for widened overpasses it describes as freeway covers, but beyond building the overpasses, ODOT is proposing to spend nothing to restore the damage done to the neighborhood, much less replace the hundreds of houses it demolished.

New Knowledge

The big compression:  Why a tight labor market is a powerful force for equity.  The big economic lament for most of the past half century has been widening wage and income inequality.  But a funny thing has happened in the past few years:  The big gains in income have come at the low end of the labor market.  Wage increases have been highest for those in the lowest wage jobs.

In a new paper fromDavid Autor, Arindrajit Dube and Annie McGrew, quantifies the sea change in labor markets.

Wages went up for all workers following the onset of the pandemic, but went up most, and stayed higher, for the lowest wage workers.  Another key development in the market was increased job changing among lower wage workers.  Low unemployment rates prompted firms to bid up wages and gave workers the opportunity to move to other better paying jobs. As the authors conclude:

Labor market tightness following the height of the Covid-19 pandemic led to an unexpected compression in the US wage distribution that reflects, in part, an increase in labor market competition. . . the pandemic increased the elasticity of labor supply to firms in the low-wage labor market, reducing employer market power and spurring rapid relative wage growth among young non-college workers who disproportionately moved from lower-paying to higher-paying and potentially more-productive jobs

The changes are large:  what’s happened in the past few years has erased about a quarter of the increase in the college wage premium since 1980.  Tight labor markets give employers strong incentives to hire and train workers, and improve their productivity.  And they give workers the opportunity to go somewhere else if they’re not happy or feel they aren’t being adequately rewarded for their work.  To be sure, we see lots of complaints from employers that they can’t find the worker’s they need, but this is actually an indication that the labor market is working better for workers, and that’s turned out to benefit low wage workers the most.

The Covid-19 pandemic was a tragedy, to be sure.  But its economic aftermath:  a very strong fiscal stimulus which produced tight labor markets, has generated substantial economic benefits for low wage workers, whose economic plight has been worsening for decades.

David Autor, Arindrajit Dube and Annie McGrew, The Unexpected Compression: Competition at work in the low wage labor market, Working Paper 31010, National Bureau of Economic Research,