What IBR doesn’t want you to know

The $7.5 Billion Interstate Bridge Replacement project is afraid of what you’ll find out when they release their Environmental Impact Statement

IBR officially determined that “leaking” the project EIS would result in “negative public reaction” to the project

Guess what:  We have an advance copy of the draft EIS:  You can now see what they don’t want you to see.

Via a public records request, No More Freeways has obtained a copy of the “risk register” for the proposed I-5 Interstate Bridge Replacement Project, which would proposed a 5-mile long, 10 or 12 lane wide highway between Portland and Vancouver, to be built at cost of $7.5 billion (and likely more).

The risk register spells out everything that could affect the project’s cost or schedule.  We were particularly intrigued to read risk #246:

During the preparation of a draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (DSEIS) admin drafts are shared outside of partner agencies and leaked to the public, resulting in negative public reaction and potentially hindering the decision-making process. The potential negative public reaction could lead to increased pressure on decision-makers to reject the proposal or make changes to it, which could ultimately delay or impact funding to the project

IBR is concerned that an early release of the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement will trigger a “negative public reaction,” and “hinder the decision-making process.” – meaning the project is delayed or opposed.


The project identified the steps it would take to make sure the public didn’t find out about what it was planning.  It’s “Risk Response Strategies” were to:

1) Ensure drafts are confidential and secure (e.g., utilizing password protected portals, marking documents with disclaimers). Consider the use of watermarks.

2) Work with partner agencies and communicate the legal implications of sharing drafts outside their agencies.

And IBR consultants diligently tracked progress to date:

Q4 2023: No significant/unmanagable [sic] leaks identified so far.
Q2 2023: Sent drafts to Agencies in early June 2023, have not heard of any
leaks to date. Will continue to monitor throughout the end of the calendar year.
Revisit risk Q3 2023.

In short, the EIS has been basically done for the past nine months, but ODOT and WSDOT are powerfully afraid that the draft document might leak out, and that when it does, the public will be outraged.

What could be hidden in the EIS?

You won’t have to wait, because the Just Crossing Alliance has obtained a copy of the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement—which still hasn’t been released to the public.  (Metro released its copy to the JCA to comply with Oregon’s public records law).

There’s a lot to read, here’s a start:

The IBR is still a pig-in-a-poke:  The Draft SEIS still isn’t saying what kind of bridge the project will build, whether it will be single-level or double level, or whether it will have a lift span.  Despite the fiction that they are proposing a single Build alternative, the project still won’t advance the actual design it plans to build.  And make no mistake, a double-decker bridge has much different environmental impacts than a single level.  The single level causes more land-side disruption, and casts more shadows over the river’s fish habitat.  The two-deck bridge has much steeper on and off-ramps with real safety issues.  And whether the bridge has a lift-span or not makes a major difference to river traffic and long-term economic development.  By not choosing just one design the draft SEIS hides this decision and its consequences from public view.

Visual impacts are still hidden from view.  For years, the IBR project has got to great pains to conceal the visual impacts of its massive bridge, which will tower over the Vancouver waterfront, and construct wide elevated freeways over much of downtown Vancouver and Hayden Island.  There’s still precious little in the DraftSEIS to show what this will really look like, even though IBR has spent nearly $200 million on consultants, and of that, more than $1.5 million building a detailed “digital twin” of the bridge.

Say good-bye to the Hurley Building.  While there aren’t any pictures in the EIS, there is this ominous note buried in the Draft SEIS.  Under land use changes, the report says, vaguely:

“Would displace the Hurley Building (commercial office use) in Vancouver.”

The 6-story Hurley Office Building, a recent signature addition to the Vancouver skyline appears doomed.  The DEIS implies it will be demolished to make way for the elevated approaches to the towering new I-5 bridge.

The Just Crossing Alliance has posted a copy of the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on its website.

We invite the public to take a close look.  In the coming days, we’ll have more to say about what’s in the document that the Washington and Oregon highway departments didn’t want you to see.

Monkey-wrenching road pricing

R.I.P. Road Pricing in Oregon:  Dead before its even tried

More than just money, the demise of pricing monkey-wrenches state transportation policy

It’s no surprise: ODOT’s attempts to implement pricing have been half-hearted and still-born

Without pricing, Portland traffic congestion will grow worse, and this blows a hole in state and regional climate plans

This week, Oregon Governor Tina Kotek told the Oregon Department of Transportation to terminate the “Regional Mobility Pricing Program.”  This pulled the plug on a legislatively mandated system to price Portland area freeways to manage traffic.  The demolishes a key foundation for state transportation policy

  • it costs the financially troubled and perennially mismanaged Oregon Department of Transportation billions that it was counting on to pay for major highway expansion projects
  • it eliminates the cornerstone of the state’s strategy for reducing transportation greenhouse gases (which contrary to state plans, have been increasing).
  • abandons the one tool that was likely to actually reduce congestion on Portland area roadways.

While this will ease the political unpopularity of tolling, it throws a monkey wrench into state transportation finances and policy.

ODOT’s approach to Road-Pricing:  Half-hearted and still-born

No one who has following the Oregon Department of Transportation’s implementation of tolling and pricing should be the least bit surprised by the failure of this effort.  The agency has had seven years to implement the 2017 law directing it to toll I-5 and I-205, and was still years away from actually doing anything. The demise of regional mobility pricing is just the latest in a series of half-hearted and still-born ODOT plans and policies for pricing Portland area roads.  The elected regional government, Metro, has been claiming since before the millennium that it was interested in implementing road pricing to manage congestion.  In 2009, the Oregon Legislature—as part of a compromise with environmentalists concerned about the added driving promoted by highway projects—enacted a state law directing ODOT to implement a road pricing demonstration project no later than September, 2012.  ODOT drug its feet, and spent three years on desultory studies of pricing on two roads (Cornelius Pass and Highway 217) that went nowhere, and then claimed to have complied with the legislative mandate when, in 2011, the City of Portland set higher game-day rates for street-parking around Portland’s soccer stadium.

The truth is that while ODOT salivates at the prospect of getting and spending toll revenues, it really doesn’t have the slightest interest in using road pricing to efficiently manage the use of hugely expensive assets.  Highway agencies are chiefly concerned about building more roads and bridges, not managing traffic.  Congestion is a convenient and perennial excuse for demanding ever more money.  And ODOT’s own consultant studies show that a system of road pricing would largely eliminate the need for additional capacity.  It should be no surprise that an agency that has repeatedly dragged out and watered down pricing policies has yet another failure on its hands.

There’s another lesson here for environmentalists:  As part of big transportation spending packages, highway builders have agreed to road pricing as a way to manage demand and reduce pollution, but have repeatedly reneged on that promise, and just kept spending on highway expansions. In 2009, the compromise between the pro-highway and environmental groups was that ODOT would implement a pilot road pricing program in three years. That didn’t happen.  In 2017, environmentalists were assured that the Legislature had mandated road pricing on I-5 and I-205.  That too, is now dead.  In both cases, ODOT forged ahead with the highway spending programs these bills authorized, but delayed and ultimately abandoned implementing pricing.  Time and again, highways get hundreds of millions in tax dollars, while environmental policies are delayed and forsaken.

Eliminating tolling makes a massive revenue problem even worse

Even before Governor Kotek’s latest decision, the finances of the Oregon Department of Transportation were in a shambles. The agency has systematically de-funded preservation and maintenance of roads to throw more money at these huge Portland area highway projects, even as their price-tags have doubled (I-5 Bridge Replacement), tripled (Abernethy Bridge), and quadrupled (I-5 Rose Quarter). Last June, the Oregon Transportation Commission produced a Kotek-ordered report to look at the finances of ODOT’s multi-billion dollar wish list of highway expansion projects.  It found that even with tolling, ODOT would be billions of dollars short of what it needed.  Its June 2023 “Financial Report” showed that without tolling the agency couldn’t come close to paying for these major projects..  Overall, the agency concedes that it is Portland area highway projects would cost $3.7 to $4.3 billion, and that the agency has only about $717 million for these projects—unless in is allowed to start levying tolls.

Both ODOT’s budget and Metro’s Regional Transportation Plan were both counting on billions of dollars in toll revenues to pay a significant part of these projects.  Now, except for the Interstate Bridge Project, Kotek has taken toll revenues off the table.

Tolls are still OK—just on the I-5 Columbia River Bridge

The one exception to Kotek’s retreat on tolling is the Interstate Bridge Project a $7.5 billion bridge and freeway expansion connecting Portland and Vancouver.  ODOT and WSDOT are counting on about $1.6 billion in toll revenues to pay a portion of project costs.  Because most of the traffic on the I-5 bridges is Washington residents coming to Oregon to work or avoid Washington sales taxes, between three-fifths and two-thirds of tolls will be paid, not be Oregon voters, but by Washington residents.  The chief immediate effect of Governor Kotek’s decision will likely to be shifting the responsibility for running the toll collections system to Washington State, which already has a “Good-to-go” toll tag system, complete with back office and billing functions.

But killing off the Regional Mobility Pricing Program has a major consequence for the traffic and environmental impacts of the IBR project.  The IBR would impose tolls of $2.80 rising to $4.34 on the I-5 bridge.  The IBR’s own traffic consultants have said that this will produce a major diversion of traffic from I-5 to I-205 (which won’t be tolled).  The pat response of IBR officials to this problem was to claim that Oregon’s Regional Mobility Pricing System would impose tolls on I-205 which would discourage diversion (something, incidentally, that they never documented as part of their environmental work).  But with RMPP dead, there will be no tolls on I-205.  Washington State’s Legislature already adopted a ban on tolling its portion of I-205 as part of the legislation it adopted legislation to channel funding to the IBR project.  Washington law provides:

(2) The Interstate 5 bridge replacement project is designated an eligible toll facility. Tolls are authorized to be imposed on the Interstate 5 bridge replacement project. Tolls may be charged for travel only on the existing and replacement Interstate 5 Columbia river bridges. Tolls may not be charged for travel on the Washington state portion of Interstate 205.
Revised Code of Washington 47.56.902 (Emphasis added).

IBR’s own studies show that tolling just I-5, and not the parallel I-205 bridge will depress traffic on I-5 and cause diversion to I-205.  The following chart shows the predicted daily level of trips across the I-5 bridge according to the IBR’s published environmental analysis. Currently about 140,000 vehicles per day cross the I-5 Columbia River Bridges  The red line on the chart shows what IBR contractor Stantec says will happen in its more detailed “Level 2” traffic study when tolls are implemented in 2026. Traffic  will fall by almost half, to only about 70,000 vehicles per day.  The modeling says that most of those vehicles per day will divert to I-205.

Shifting 30,000 cars a day to the I-205 bridge will have its own traffic impacts, and is particularly important because I-205 is the principal access route to Portland International Airport.  Personal and freight trips to the airport are among the most valuable and time sensitive trips in the region, and tolling IBR, and not tolling I-205, will make airport access much worse.  Failing to disclose this kind of impact would be a fatal flaw in the IBR’s Environmental Impact Statement.

Without de-congestion pricing there will be more congestion

The most profound irony of Kotek’s decision is that it is coming just as North America is about to witness the most powerful demonstration of the advantages of de-congestion pricing when New York City implements its pricing system for cars entering lower Manhattan.  While opponents characterize tolling as just an additional tax, the experience of major cities around the world is that pricing provides “value for money”—that the travelers who end up paying the tolls get a faster, smoother, more predictable trip.  Indeed, road pricing is the only strategy that’s been shown to effectively reduce traffic congestion.

Metro’s just-adopted 2023 Regional Transportation Plan counts heavily on a system of variable pricing on all of the region’s “throughways” including I-5, I-205, and other highways, such as US 26, Highway 217, and I-84, to manage peak hour demand.

Metro’s RTP said that road pricing was essential to reducing traffic congestion:

• Tolling is expected to reduce total VMT.
• Tolling is expected to reduce congestion on I-5 and I-205.
• Tolling will likely lead to an increase in carpooling. .
• Tolling will likely encourage people to shift when they travel.

Without road pricing, Metro won’t achieve either congestion reduction goals called for in its Regional Transportation Plan. What the Governor’s abandonment of pricing means is that Oregon will continue suffer worse and worse traffic congestion, because it gives travelers no incentives or feedback (through variable tolling) to encourage them to travel at different times, or take different routes or destinations.  Unpriced roadways will lead to overuse, and just having tolls on one road segment or bridge (like the I-5 bridge) will make traffic congestion worse elsewhere.

More traffic means more greenhouse gas emissions

For fifteen years, Oregon has had an ambitious goal of reducing greenhouse gases by 75 percent from 1990 levels by 2050.  It’s made notable progress in cleaning up electricity generation, making manufacturing more efficient, and lowering emissions from homes, stores and offices.  Where it has utterly failed to make progress is in transportation, where greenhouse gas emissions are now about 20 percent higher than they were in 1990.  While the state has mandated cleaner fuels, and cars have gradually become cleaner, the state and regional climate strategies also call for measures to reduce the amount of driving.  These strategies (ODOT’s State Transportation Strategy and Metro’s Regional Transportation Plan) both count heavily on road pricing to reduce VMT.

Metro’s RTP claims it will comply with a state requirement to achieve a 35 percent reduction in per capita vehicle miles traveled, largely due to road pricing:

Pricing Policy 5. Reduce greenhouse gas emissions and vehicle miles travelled per capita while increasing access to low-carbon travel options. The Metro Regional Congestion Pricing Study found that pricing has the potential to help the great Portland region reduce greenhouse gas emissions and achieve Metro’s climate goals. All of the scenarios tested in the study showed reductions in greenhouse gas emissions through reducing overall VMT per capita. Pricing policies were found to be effective in encouraging drivers to change their travel behavior such as using more sustainable travel modes like transit, walking, or biking. These changes in behavior are key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the region.
page 3-52

Nixing road pricing means that Metro won’t reduce vehicle miles traveled as planned, and that greenhouse gas emissions will be considerably higher than called for in the plan, putting Metro in violation of state greenhouse gas reduction regulations.

Lots of Homework 

Cancelling road pricing was the easy part.  Now state and local authorities will have to pick up the pieces, re-writing major pieces of state and local transportation plans.  All these plans assumed we’d have road pricing to provide funding, manage demand and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  The plans that hinged on those assumptions are now effectively a dead letter.  Here are just some of the obvious items that must be fixed:

  • ODOT will have to come up with billions of dollars to finish its I-205 Abernethy Bridge project, and $1.9 billion Rose Quarter project.
  • ODOT and LCDC will have to re-do their climate plans, which claimed that road pricing was one of the ways the state would reduce driving to achieve greenhouse gas reduction goals.
  • Metro will have to amend its regional transportation plan, which not only counted on tolling to pay for projects, but also assumed congestion pricing would be used to manage area throughways, reducing congestion, and lowering pollution.  Likewise, Metro’s climate plan assumed the state would implement a sweeping system of congestion pricing on Portland throughways, to lower VMT and achieve climate goals.  All those assumptions are not flatly wrong.
  • Finally, the Interstate Bridge Project will need to revise its Environmental Impact Statement to disclose that tolling the I-5 bridges and not tolling I-205 will produce massive diversion of traffic to I-205, will likely slow traffic to and around Portland International Airport, and will mean that the massive $7.5 billion freeway widening project will be perpetually under-utilized–carrying less traffic that the existing I-5 bridges for the foreseeable future.

A yawning chasm: Patterns of neighborhood distress in US metros

There’s a yawning chasm of neighborhood level economic distress across US metro areas.  While about 1 in 6 US neighborhoods is classed as distressed, some metro areas have large concentrations of distress, while others have almost no distressed neighborhoods at all.  Focusing on groups of contiguous zip codes classified as “distressed” shows that in some metros 20 percent or more of the population lives in a distressed zip code that is part of a cluster of distress, while in other metro’s less than 1 percent of the region’s population live in such distressed clusters.  Here are the six large metro areas with the largest and smallest shares of their metro area population living in a cluster of distressed zip codes:

In short, the problem of concentrated neighborhood distress appears to be an order of magnitude greater in some metro areas than others.  The problem of persistent, concentrated poverty continues to plague some large metropolitan areas, while others have a geography of much more evenly distributed economic well-being.

These insights are based on data from a new report from the Economic Innovation Group which illustrates the widely varying patterns of neighborhood distress across the nation. EIG’s  uses a series of seven indicators, including job growth, educational attainment, poverty, housing, income, unemployment and business growth to rank states, counties, cities and zip codes as either distressed, at-risk, comfortable or prosperous.  Viewed at its finest resolution, zip codes, the index provides a fascinating mosaic of varied economic conditions.

Overall, 52 million Americans—about 16 percent of the population—live in a zip code that is classified as distressed.

Of these 12.8 million people, about a quarter of the people living in a distressed zip code in the United States live in a zip code that is contiguous to other distressed zip codes in one of the nation’s largest metro areas.

Concentrations of distressed zip codes are disproportionately located in relatively few large metropolitan areas.  Many large metropolitan areas have less than 2 percent of their population living in contiguous distressed zip codes.

Looking past the bewildering jigsaw puzzle.

Viewed at a national level, zip code data looks like a challenging jigsaw puzzle.  The one pattern that emerges consistently is the profoundly rural and regional character of zip code level distress.  Most distressed places are rural, rather than metropolitan, and the entire southern part of the country, from New Mexico to the Atlantic is dominated by rural distressed zip codes.  Metro areas, in contrast, tend to be prosperous or comfortable, and the metropolitan, and bi-coastal character of prosperity is apparent if you look closely.

Where are distressed neighborhoods concentrated?

A critical question is how is prosperity distributed within metro areas.  The great value of the EIG website is you can quickly zoom into a map of a particular metropolitan area and see the geography of distress and poverty.  Looking closely at the pattern of zip codes, some striking patterns emerge.  In most large metros, distressed zip codes tend to be found in the center of the region, and most distressed zip codes are contiguous—that is, there are clusters of distressed neighborhoods.  Some metro areas have large numbers of distressed neighborhoods clustered in their cores, others have far fewer.  Here are maps of several metropolitan areas, with zip codes colored dark red classified as “distressed.”  First, Cleveland, a long-suffering rust-belt city has one of the largest clusters of distressed neighborhoods, which dominate most of its central zip codes.  Nearly 500,000 people live in this contiguous group of 21 zip codes, about 23 percent of the metropolitan area population.

Source: Economic Innovation Group, Distressed Community Index website

Distressed neighborhoods also occur in growing sunbelt metros as well, as this map of Houston makes clear.  Much of the region’s east side is neighborhoods that are classified as distressed.  About 12 percent of Houston’s metro population, roughly 865,000 people live in this group of 29 contiguous “distressed” zip codes.  (Note that we don’t count a second, smaller separate cluster of distressed zip codes on the city’s southwest side).

Source: Economic Innovation Group, Distressed Community Index website

Some metro areas have few or isolated pockets of distressed zip codes, according to the EIG metrics.  The Denver and Salt Lake City metro areas have no distressed zip codes, per EIG.  The Portland metropolitan area has two distressed zip codes, with the most of the rest of the region classified as comfortable or prosperous.

Source: Economic Innovation Group, Distressed Community Index website


Which metro areas have the most concentrated neighborhood distress?

To look at this more systematically, we counted the number of contiguous, distressed zip codes in each of the nation’s largest metro areas.  For each metro, we computed the number of people living in these distressed zip codes, and the total share of the metro area population living in one of those contiguous distressed zip codes.  Overall, 12.8 million people, about a quarter of the people living in a distressed zip code in the United States live in a zip code that is contiguous to other distressed zip codes in one of the nation’s largest metro areas.

Among metropolitan areas with a million or more population, the median metropolitan area has about 5 percent of its population living in its largest cluster of distressed zip codes.  But there’s very wide variation across metropolitan areas.  Memphis and Cleveland, for example, have more than five times as large a share of their metro populations living in a cluster of concentrated distress.  In contrast, the bottom quartile of all metro areas have fewer than 2 percent of their regional populations living in clusters of zip codes experiencing distress.


A national picture of concentrated neighborhood distress.  We’ve taken the same data shown in the figure above, and presented it in mapped form to show the pattern of variation in concentrated neighborhood distress across U.S. metropolitan areas.  In this map, the size of each circle corresponds to the number of persons living in contiguous distressed zip codes in each metropolitan area; the color of each circle corresponds to the share of the region’s population living in contiguous distressed zip codes (with green being fewest, and yellow/red most).  Mousing over the map symbols shows the number of zip codes in each contiguous cluster, and the number of persons and share of the metropolitan population living in each cluster.

There are clear geographic patterns here:  Rustbelt cities tend to have much larger shares of their population living in contiguous distressed zip codes.  Most Western metro’s have relatively small shares of their population living in such neighborhoods.  The pattern in the US South is varied.  And many fast-growing metros have higher proportions of concentrated distressed zip codes:  Oklahoma City, Houston, Las Vegas and San Antonio all have two to three times as large a share of their population living in contiguous distressed zip codes than in the median large metropolitan area.

There are strong reasons to focus on these clusters:  There’s a powerful body of evidence that concentrated poverty–living in a neighborhood where a high fraction of your neighbors are poor, has more devastating effects.  A single, isolated zip code that gets classified as “distressed” is a far less intractable problem than a contiguous cluster of 10 or 20 such zip codes.

About the EIG Distressed Communities Index

The methodology of the EIG Index is explained on its website.  The index consists of seven different indicators, which represent a mix of socio-economic and housing indicators.

Our thanks to EIG for publishing their zip code level maps in a publicly accessible format.  The conclusions presented in this commentary are those of City Observatory, and not necessarily EIG.


Freeway covers are an expensive way to create new urban land

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could create valuable new urban land by decking over freeways?

Turns out, its massively uneconomical, and doesn’t eliminate many of the most negative effects of urban freeways

Its massively uneconomical because that “land” thats created by capping freeways costs at least three times more to build than the land is worth.

While covering up a freeway made hide it from view, it does nothing to eliminate the flood of cars and their associated pollution, which simply spew out from under the covers.

Should we pay $5 to create $1 worth of urban land?

There’s a Seattle proposal to create 17 acres of land in the center of the city by building a cap over I-5.  Rough estimates are that the cap would cost up to $2.5 billion.  Long division tells us that creating an acre of land would cost $150 million (that’s without any improvements, and likely without the cost of necessary utilities or adequate substructure to support buildings).  For reference, the average value of square foot of downtown property in Seattle ranges between $500 and $1,500 per square foot.  Even if land over the freeway were worth the midpoint of that range, about $1,000 per square foot, that means an acre of land is worth about $43 million, and 17 acres, in theory, would be worth $700 million or more.  But at typically land needs to be dedicated to street rights-of-way and the net buildable land would perhaps be 80 percent of the total, worth about $500 million or so.

In Seattle, cover proponents argue that the cost of the newly created land can be offset by selling it off for development as apartments or offices.  But no one can afford to pay anything approaching the actual cost of creating such land; at best land sales might recoup a small fraction of the cost of And a $2.5 billion cost estimate for a freeway cover is highly suspect.  On its face, spending $2.5 billion to create $500 million worth of land is a value-destroying proposition.

Washington’s Legislature is likely to pull the plug on a far simpler cover proposed for State Route 520 because of a 70 percent cost overrun.  Portland’s I-5 Rose Quarter project shows how much the price tag of freeway caps can balloon:  the project, featuring a cap over I-5 near downtown Portland has quadrupled from $450 million in 2017 to $1.9 billion last year.

The Rose Quarter project also reveals some of the difficulties with creating covers that can support buildings.  Not all of the land on the covers can be built upon:  some structural elements of the cover have to be kept clear.  Even the parts that can be built on may be restricted to “lightweight” structures.

The perpetrators are asking their victims to pay for fixing the damage done to cities

And finally, there is the issue of who will pay.  Everyone agrees that caps are nice things to have, but highway departments are remarkably loathe to actually pay the cost of patching the scars they’ve inflicted on the urban landscape.

In Austin, TXDOT has flatly refused to pay the cost of “stitches” over a widened I-35 freeway, and is passing the entire cost off to the City of Austin, which will have to come up with as much as $800 million.   The stitches (small bridges with pedestrian amenities) and caps (block long or longer covers), would also have to be maintained by the city at a cost estimated at as much as $48 million a year.

In Dallas:  Cost of trenching I-345 rose from $1 billion to $1.6 billion; and of course, that price tag doesn’t include the cost of covering the freeway, which TX DOT won’t pay for, but instead will become the responsibility of the City of Dallas.

In Denver, Colorado spent roughly 10 percent of the cost of its $1.3 billion I-70 freeway widening project to build a four-acre park atop the roadway.  Neighborhood residents are still concerned about pollution levels near the freeway.

In Portland—where a mile and half long freeway widening project has exploded in cost from $450 million to $1.9 billion—the Oregon Department of Transportation claims it can’t legally pay for any supporting structures beyond those needed to hold up the roadway itself—and that someone else will have to pay the costs of beams strong enough to support buildings.

It’s nice to imagine a world where urban highways didn’t gouge massive scars on city neighborhoods.  And predictably attractive green artistic renderings of what a covered area might look like are, at least when viewed from a distance, more attractive than noisy car-choked roadways.  But as a way to create more urban land, decking over highways is one of the most expensive ways to expand our urban area.  And, in a just world, the highway agencies that carved the scars across the nation’s cities would pay to repair the damage done, in the form of replacing the homes and businesses they destroyed; but in reality, highway agencies plan to foist most of the costs of covers, caps and stitches onto their victims:  the cities eviscerated by highway construction.

Carmageddon does a no show, again (Baltimore edition)

On Tuesday, March 26, the containership Dali slammed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, causing it to collapse into the Patapsco River.  Tragically, six workers on the bridge were killed, but fortunately the collision occurred in the middle of the night, rather than during peak travel hours, when hundreds of vehicles would likely have been on the bridge.  The Key Bridge is an important part of Baltimore’s freeway network, carrying about 35,000 vehicles per day.  While President Biden has pledged to replace the bridge, that process could take years.


What would commuters and travelers do without this vital chunk of roadway?  Surely, we’re headed for gridlock and carmageddon!  Reuter’s warned its readers.

There was plainly some disruption on Tuesday’s morning commute, as people woke up to the disaster.  But on Wednesday morning, despite some localized delays, pretty much nothing out of the ordinary happened.  Here’s what Wednesday morning traffic looked like according to Google Maps

Traffic conditions in Baltimore, Wednesday, March 27 10AM (Google Maps)

The Key Bridge and approaches (shown in red) are completely closed to traffic).  The two highway tunnels under the harbor (carrying I-95 and I-895) have some slowing in one direction (NB on I-895, and SB on I-95).  Despite these mostly local slowdowns, on most parts of the region’s highway network traffic seems to be moving with equal alacrity as on any typical weekday, despite the collapse of the Key Bridge and closure of several of its approaches.  For comparison, here’s what a typical Wednesday morning looks like, according to Google’s historical data.

Traffic conditions in Baltimore, Typical Wednesday 10AM (Google Maps)

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 PhiladelphiaLos 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.  As David Zipper explains eloquently in Slate, travel patterns quickly adapt to changes in road capacity, especially in the case of dramatic events like a bridge collapse.  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, it’s counterproductive.  More capacity generates more travel, more sprawl, more pollution, and ultimately more congestion.  It’s time to get off this treadmill.


The Week Observed, March 29, 2024

What City Observatory did this week

What the Interstate Bridge Replacement Project doesn’t want you to know.  The $7.5 Billion Interstate Bridge Replacement project is afraid of what you’ll find out when they release their Environmental Impact Statement.  IBR officially determined that “leaking” the project EIS would result in “negative public reaction” to the project. Guess what:  We have an advance copy of the draft EIS:  You can now see what they don’t want you to see.
We have reveal some of the secrets hidden in the unreleased EIS.  For starters, the IBR project plans to demolish one of the most recent additions to the Vancouver skyline, the six story Hurley Building.

There’s much more.  And you can now see what IBR planners didn’t want you to know because community activists at the Just Crossing Alliance have used public record laws to get a copy of the draft supplemental EIS, and have posted it to the web.  Take a look at what you’re not supposed to see.

Carmaggedon does a no show, yet again (Baltimore edition).  This week, tragedy struck in Baltimore when the containership Dali crashed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge killing as many as six people who were working on bridge maintenance at the time. Fortunately the crash didn’t happen at peak travel times, as the bridge carries about 35,000 vehicles per day.  As usual, the media were quick to predict that the collapse would produce traffic chaos.  But a quick look at Google Maps traffic data for Wednesday morning (a day after the bridge collapse) shows a few local slowdowns, but most Baltimore traffic exactly like a typical weekday.

This isn’t an anomaly.  Time and again, when a bridge or freeway is closed for maintenance, construction, or because of some disaster, traffic patterns quickly adjust to the change in capacity.  It’s a powerful illustration of traffic evaporation.  Contrary to the beliefs of traffic engineers, travelers are not mindless automatons bound to fixed routes; people quickly and routinely adjust their travel habits to respond to changes in conditions, especially road capacity.  This has an important implication for transportation planning in dense urban areas:  adding or subtracting capacity may change travel volumes, but absent road pricing, does little or nothing to influence congestion.

Must Read

The Doom Loop that didn’t happen.  American cities can offer up their own paraphrase of Mark Twain’s famous remark that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated.   The “tdlr” of the doom loop theory is that work from home would depopulate office buildings, commercial tax payments would fall, cities would have to slash services, and cities would become hell-holes.  The reality is different in important respects.  Office occupancy and values are down, in most cities commercial property taxes are a very small portion of municipal budgets.  More importantly, while office populations are down, city populations aren’t:  populations are up in the downtowns of 25 of the 26 largest cities. Urban home values are up sharply:  at least in part because people are demanding more space for work-at-home offices.

. . . the biggest problem that superstar cities face today is the same one that afflicted them before the pandemic: Too many people want to live in them. Housing prices have skyrocketed over the past four years. In New York, Boston, and Los Angeles, vacancy rates are at or near their lowest levels in decades. Even San Francisco, the paragon of post-pandemic urban decline, is doing remarkably well. Last year, its population grew more from net migration than any other city in California, and its crime rate fell.

Finally, proximity to a job isn’t the only, or necessarily the most important reason we live in cities.  Instead, people value the convenience, choice, consumption amenities and opportunities for social interaction that cities provide–things that are all relatively more important if we’re spending less time in the office.

How SUV’s undermined climate progress.  Kate Aronoff of The New Republic has an incisive analysis of how a loophole in the fuel efficiency regulations. When the EPA adopted new fuel efficiency regulations as part of its climate change strategy in 2012, it carved out a special provision that set less demanding standards for sport utility vehicles and light trucks.  Unsurprisingly, automakers responded by producing ever more trucks and SUVs.  And after a collapse in oil prices in 2014, consumers bought more and more of these less efficient vehicles.  The result:  we’re getting far lower reductions in greenhouse gas emissions than EPA promised when it adopted the efficiency rule.  Aronoff reports:

The EPA had projected the rules it implemented that year would result in average targets that were 22 grams per mile lower than those that were actually in place in 2021. And it thereforeprojected its 2012 rules would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 3.5 percent per year from 2012 through 2021. Instead, the agency found it reduced emissions by about 2 percent per year.

Federal and state greenhouse gas reduction strategies count on a steady decline in greenhouse gas emissions per mile driven, but the actual experience with mileage standards has been that they’ve provided only a little more than half the emissions reductions that were promised.  Oregon’s strategy, for example, assumed greenhouse gas emissions, measured in grams per mile, would fall by more than 4 percent per year; the reality is that we’ve only made improvements at half that rate.

The case for decongestion pricing in <your state’s name here>.  Kevin DeGood has a guest commentary at Streetsblog Massachusetts calling for the Bay State to adopt decongestion pricing.  DeGood starts with the premise that the workhorse of road finance–the gas tax–is on the way out, and the commonwealth will need a new way to pay for roads.  While his arguments are specific to Massachusetts, they apply with equal force to most every state.  As DeGood points out, a gas tax or mileage fee does almost nothing to reflect back to road users the single greatest cost of the road system:  building enough capacity to accommodate everyone who would like to travel at peak hours.  He explains:

The only way to ensure the highway system runs smoothly and efficiently is by charging drivers directly for their use of the network. This type of charge is typically called congestion pricing, though it would be more accurate to call it decongestion pricing. An urban highway lane is a valuable—and very limited—commodity. Unlike a simple fuel tax, the technology underpinning decongestion pricing allows for sophisticated management of the transportation system. For instance, highway pricing can vary depending on the level of congestion, size and weight of the vehicle, time of day, location, and direction of travel—among other characteristics.

The longevity of the gas tax suggests that we get a chance to rethink how we pay for transportation roughly once every century or so:  If we’re going to make a major change, it is important we get it right.  Your state should be looking seriously at decongestion pricing.

The promise and the perfidy of “Reconnecting Communities.  Ben Crowther of America Walks has a neat summary of USDOT’s “Reconnecting Communities” grant awards.  While the money has seeded funding for some potentially promising ideas to remove the freeways that devastated urban neighborhoods, too much of the money has been captured by state highway departments for slightly warmed-over versions of their long-runing efforts to widen highways everywhere.  To its credit, USDOT has made grants to groups like those in Syracuse, New York which are taking on the hard work of actually undoing the damage done by decades of urban highway expansion.  A fifth of the money has gone to projects Crowther describes as “problematic” where highway departments are getting more money to just widen highways, with the biggest award going to Portland’s problematic I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway widening, shown below..

The Oregon Department of Transportation claims that this “reconnecting communities project simply adds one auxiliary lane in each direction on I-5.  But their hitherto secret plans show they’re building a right of way to accomodate a ten lane freeway with suburban style shoulders.  This plan divides more than it reconnects.

New Knowledge

A dramatic surge in road-building.  In the past four years, the amount we spend building new roads and highways has increased by almost 50 percent, from about $100 billion annually just before the pandemic, to nearly $150 billion annually today.  Great news if you’re an asphalt or concrete contractor, and welcome news for AASHTO, but definitely headed in the wrong direction if you expect to reduce car dependence and vehicle miles traveled (which is essential to achieving greenhouse gas reductions).

U.S. Census Bureau, Total Construction Spending: Highway and Street in the United States [TLHWYCONS], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/TLHWYCONS, March 22, 2024.




The Week Observed, March 22, 2024

What City Observatory did this week

The high cost of covering freeways.  The latest fashion in highway urbanism is “capping” freeways.  In theory, highway builders claim that capping freeways will repair past damage and even create new urban land.  They produce gauzy green renderings of what capped freeway might look like.  But urban leaders need to look closer:  the cost of capping freeways is vastly greater than the value of any land created, and highway departments are, predictably, foisting the costs for these “reparations” off onto their victims, the cities gutted by freeway construction.

It turns out that as a way to create new land, capping is massively uneconomical, and doesn’t eliminate many of the most negative effects of urban freeways.  While covering up a freeway made hide it from view, it does nothing to eliminate the flood of cars and their associated pollution, which simply spew out from under the covers.

Must Read

Highway expansion undermines Scotland’s Climate Commitments.  A new report from Scottish environmentalists shows that funds from the national government are being used as part of partnership deals with local cities and are contributing to increasing vehicle travel and car dependence. The national government has committed nearly 5 billion pounds to deals in Glasgow, Edinburgh and other cities, but many of the selected projects simply widen or otherwise expand road capacity.

Transform Scotland reports that 71 percent of the transportation spending in the deals is “high carbon” infrastructure like road widening, and says that the strategy fails to evaluate the environmental effects of the projects, and flies in the face of Scotland’s legally binding agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Transform Scotland’s Colin Howden told the BBC that rather than transforming cities, the deals had:

 “. . . instead blown the cash on a new round of road-building that will inevitably generate more traffic and higher emissions. . . .  We’re fed up with Scotland’s political class mouthing empty platitudes about ‘net zero’ and ‘anti-poverty’ yet decade after decade making deliberate decisions to build new infrastructure that makes the country’s climate failure more and more certain, and neglects to provide fairer access to transport for the country’s poorest.”

Transform Scotland recommends that all road building projects included in the deals should be halted pending a climate change assessment, and that deals be re-structured to prioritize investment in low-carbon transport options that would help Scotland achieve its stated climate goals.   Their report makes specific reference to the Welsh government’s decision to suspend most highway expansion programs last year.

Crime went down, even though most people think it went up.  One of the most persistent tropes of the era is the idea that crime is somehow rising or higher than it has ever been.  A recent report from PBS juxtaposes actual data on violent crime with polling data on perceptions of crime rates.  While most Americans think crime went up in 2023, initial data suggest that the nation experienced one of its biggest decreases in crime ever.  Jeff Asher of AH Analytics told PBS

. . . with that Gallup poll, what’s more concerning to me is that 77 percent of Americans think that crime rose in the last year. And all of the evidence that we have show that murder declined, and declined significantly, possibly the largest one-year decline ever.

The preliminary data shows that violent crime and property crime likely fell.

Unfortunately, too many in the media (and in politics) are not about to let the facts get in the way of a preferred narrative.

One of these things is not like the other.  A new report tracking progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Europe shows that most countries are making progress on reducing emissions in most economic sectors:  with one glaring exception. Transport emissions, largely from road traffic, but also from other sources, including air travel, are stubbornly resisting policies to cause their decline.  Aside from a sharp but brief dip during the pandemic, transport emissions have remained well above 1990 levels for most of the past 20 years.

According to the authors of the report, the NGO “Transport and Environment, “This untethered growth resulted in transport becoming the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the EU, exceeding 1 gigatonne.”  The report underscores that even in Europe, shrinking the carbon footprint of a car-dependent transportation system is happening far slower than needed to achieve our climate goals.

New Knowledge

The geography of single sex couples in the US.  Oregon economist Josh Lehner has mined Census data to compute the fraction of same-sex couples living in every metropolitan area in the US.  Unsurprisingly, San Francisco has the highest share of its population in same-sex couples (about 1.7 percent) followed closely by Seattle and Portland.

At a state level, Vermont, Oregon and Massachusetts have the highest fractions of same sex couples.  A national map of the relative concentration of same sex households shows a familiar bi-coastal pattern, with the most common concentrations of same sex couples in large metro areas in the Northeast and West Coast (lighter yellow shading), and much lower concentrations of same sex couples in the Midwest and South.  (This map includes only metro areas; rural areas aren’t shown (shaded white).

Josh Lehner, “Same Sex Couples” Oregon Office of Economic Analysis, March 20, 2024.  https://oregoneconomicanalysis.com/2024/03/20/same-sex-households/




The Week Observed, March 15, 2024

What City Observatory did this week

Abandoning road pricing monkey-wrenches state transportation, traffic reduction and climate plans.  This week, Oregon Governor Tina Kotek terminated Oregon’s Regional Mobility Pricing Program, which would have imposed per mile fees on major Portland-area freeways.  The plan, approved by the legislature seven years ago, has been developed at a snail’s pace by the Oregon Department of Transportation, but as implementation neared (possibly in 2026) many politicians got cold feet.  Kotek’s order resolves a short-term political problem, but creates all kinds of headaches for transportation in Oregon.

State and regional transportation plans have counted on road pricing to raise funds, manage (and reduce) traffic congestion, and reduce vehicle miles traveled in order to achieve state greenhouse gas reduction goals.  Terminating pricing just made each of those problems worse:  ODOT’s badly managed budget—already reeling from massive cost-overruns on highway widening projects—is now even worse off.  Plans that called for reducing congestion with time-of-day pricing are also out the window—and congestion will grow worse.  Finally, both ODOT and Metro (Portland’s regional planning agency) made road pricing the foundation of their claims that they’d reduce per capita driving by more than a third, in order to achieve adopted state greenhouse gas reductions.  These financial, transportation, and climate plans are in a shambles now as a result.

Must Read

No accountability for transportation spending.  Politicians like to make sweeping claims about “investing in infrastructure” but as we all know, the devil is in the details:  who gets how much money for what projects.  In theory, the IIJA, the Investing in Infrastructure and Jobs Act, aka the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, was supposed to help, among other things, redress past injustices and forestall further climate change.  But it turns out that most of the money has been aspirated into the carburetor of the same old highway-dominated spending system.  Transportation for America, the national advocacy group, has invested considerable resources in just trying to track down how much money went where, and for what.  They’ve even enlisted artificial intelligence to study the question.  As Corrigan Salerno reports, the results are far from transparent.  It’s simply impossible to tell where the money went.  While Transportation for America was able to track some federal funds, it wasn’t able to follow all the money passed through to state transportation agencies:

. . . state-funded projects are not tracked in any central location. There are billions of dollars that this analysis cannot account for, programmed away in over 50 different formats within their State Transportation Improvement Programs (STIPs) that spell out state spending plans across the country.

Without details on how funds were spent, it’s virtually impossible to hold anyone accountable for results.

And even when projects ostensibly serve these climate, safety and social justice purposes, they may just be the same old highway widening projects dressed up with woke-washing and token multi-modal features, like the $450 million in “reconnecting communities funds” awarded to the Oregon Department of Transportation for a project that doubles width of the I-5 freeway that decimated the city’s historically African-American neighborhood.

Partisanship and Covid, revisited.  Brad Delong points us to the New York Times analysis of Covid death rates by county.  The pattern is striking.  While Covid-19 deaths were initially more prevalent in “blue” counties, the pattern has shifted dramatically over time, with deaths being persistently higher in “red” counties.  This shift was especially strong after the availability of the Covid vaccines.

As DeLong argues, the data suggest having neighbors who vote for Donald Trump Is dangerous to your health.  Delong calculates

“in a county where the margin for Trump vs. Biden rises by an extra 1%-point…and your chances of dying from the Covid Plague go up by 0.0075%-point: That means (with an election turnout of half the population) that you only need an additional 67 excess Trump voters in a county to kill one additional person from the Covid Plague.”


In the News

Oregon Public Broadcasting included Joe Cortright’s analysis of the demise of road pricing in its story “A plan to toll Portland highways is dead.”



The Week Observed, March 8, 2024

What City Observatory did this week

A yawning chasm in neighborhood distress among metro areas. Almost every metropolitan area has some neighborhoods that face serious economic distress, but the patterns of distress vary widely across the nation. We use data from the Economic Innovation Group’s latest distressed communities index to identify clusters of contiguous zip codes that are classified as distressed. We find that there is a more than order of magnitude difference in the degree of concentrated distress among Metro areas. The hardest hit metros have 20 percent or more of their population living in contiguous clusters of distressed zip codes. But nearly as many metros have almost no economic distress (with less than 2 percent of their population living in contiguous distressed zip codes)These data are a stark reminder that neighborhood level distress is a big problem in some metropolitan areas, but a much, much smaller problem in others. There’s powerful evidence that large and persistent concentrations of poverty have multi-generational effects. But in many metropolitan areas, economic distress is much more isolated, and is more about human capital than about geography.

Must Read

Housing markets explained using Legos.  Governor Kotek patiently explains housing markets in terms anyone can understand. Housing economics often seem like a complex and daunting subject, but Oregon Governor Tina Kotek has a new video that succinctly explains housing affordability, the causes of displacement and how to solve both.


Using Lego’s Kotek demonstrates that when more people are seeking housing than the number of available homes, prices and rents get bid up, and those with the least resources are displaced. The solution is to add more homes, and we can do so through a variety of means: single family residences, duplexes, townhomes and apartments.  For the record, City Observatory has some serious reservations about one part of the Governor’s plan: expanding urban growth boundaries around the state:  the lack of housing at the urban periphery is not Oregon’s housing supply problem, and more sprawl poses a wide range of affordability, environmental and fiscal problems. That caveat notwithstanding, we applaud the Governor’s clear exposition of the importance of expanding supply, which can be done most importantly, by allowing more housing on land already designated and serviced for urban densities.

Hurray for HLA.  This past week, voters in LA overwhelmingly voted to approve Proposition HLA, a measure requiring the city to implement plans to add bike and pedestrian improvements to city streets as they are rebuilt. Like many cities, LA has ambitious plans to add bike lanes and sidewalks, but these tend to get a very low priority (compared to maintaining and fixing stroads. Voters approved the measure notwithstanding a troubling opposition campaign highlighting opposition by local firefighters unions, which claimed the measure would increase response times.

Voters didn’t buy these scare tactics, and voted almost two-to-one in favor of Measure HLA. It’s a reminder that parochial concerns of a few (usually parking spaces, or slower speeds) are much less important than addressing the profound safety deficiencies of our existing roads.

As active transportation advocates know, firefighters often claim that traffic calming measures like diverters, narrower lanes, traffic circles and bikelanes will somehow impede their over-sized vehicles. Not only is there no evidence that this is the case, but all these improvements directly reduce the number and severity of road injuries—and in virtually every community injuries and deaths in car crashes vastly outnumber the human cost of fires. Firefighters ought to know this—they respond to car crashes much more than building fires.

Your small apartment is really as big as your city. There have been social media stories rediscovering that Tokyo has many small apartments—as small as 300 square feet. To some, such small apartments are emblematic of a terrifying prospect of cramped living. But as Noah Smith—who lived in such a Tokyo apartment for a year explains, the size of the apartment is really secondary to the urban amenities that surround it. Especially if you’re young, and single, and not wealthy, being able to afford a place of your own that puts you in the middle of shops, restaurants, parks, jobs, and close to other people who share your interests, 300 square feet is an abundance of space. You spend most of your time elsewhere.

As Smith notes there’s a contrast between where we spend the bulk of our time in the US compared to Japan:

America is a place where you live INSIDE—inside your house, your car, your office, or maybe a mall.
Japan is a place where you live OUTSIDE, in public spaces that are made to provide you with both adventure and comfort.

And no one is “forced” to live in a small apartment: these micro-apartments provide choices to those who wouldn’t otherwise have them. For too long, housing policy in the US has decided that smaller and shared living arrangements, like single room occupancy buildings, were “substandard” and made them illegal—without providing affordable alternatives. A small apartment one can afford is preferable to living on the street, or being forced to live far from the opportunities, amenities and people who live in your city.

Ikea spokes-shark Blahaj explains the merits of tiny homes.

New Knowledge

City Density Gradients

One of the key measures of urbanism is density. As Economist Ed Glaeser says, cities are the absence of space between people. Jonathan Nolan has created a great new tool for visualizing the differences in density across cities and metropolitan areas world-wide. The tool features a density gradient—a line representing the average density of each city based on the radial distance from the center of the region. As a rule, densities tend to be highest in the urban center, and then taper off the further one moves away from the center.

CityDensity.Com allows you to observe the density gradient for most of the large cities around the world, and compare different metropolitan areas. Its charts are instructive in a couple of ways. First, they illustrate the absolute differences in density across metro areas. US Metro areas are uniformly less dense than their counterparts in most of the rest of the world. Second, it’s useful to compare the slope of the density gradient across cities. Some places are highly peaked, with high levels of density in the center; while others tend to be much uniform and “flatter.”

City Density lets you look at overall population density, population-weighted density (the density experienced by the average person), and density measures that exclude bodies of water.

The charts show just how different some of the world’s great cities are from typical American cities. There are more people, and in particular, much more people close to the center. Here’s a chart showing Paris, New York and Houston.  In their centers, New York and Paris have high levels of density; Houston, like may US metros, is basically flat, with central densities levels basically no higher than at the periphery.

The City-Density charts also serve as an informative counterpart to one of urbanist social media’s favorite tropes: superimposing the rail network from some livable European city with a similarly sized but car-dependent American counterpart. Why can’t we, with about the same population, support a similar rail network, these comparisons ask? The density charts provide a compelling answer: cities with great rail systems also have high levels of density; car dependent sprawl is difficult or impossible to serve economically.

Rail Networks:  Madrid and Atlanta

The implication the map posted to Reddit (below) is that Madrid and Atlanta have roughly similar populations, but that Atlanta has a tragically sparse rail network.  Why couldn’t it be more like Madrid, which is covered in a dense mesh of rails?

Population Density

Comparing the population densities of the two regions provides a good explanation:  Madrid has high levels of density in the center, not unlike New York and Paris, while Atlanta is flat, and less dense than Madrid even 20 miles (30 kilometers) from its center.

:  Madrid and Atlanta

To be sure, there’s a chicken-and-egg problem here: Density makes a strong rail network viable, and a robust rail network makes density more attractive. Too many US metro areas are stuck in a place where its difficult to build rail networks and denser housing.


The Week Observed, March 1, 2024

What City Observatory Did this Week

Is it time to address the problem of “Missing Massive” housing?  This past week marked the latest convening of YIMBYTown, this year, held in Austin, Texas.  One of the perennial topics was state strategies to promote “missing middle” housing—as evidenced by multiple initiatives to allow duplexes, triplexes and four-plexes in what have been exclusively single family zones.  There’s real merit to missing middle reform, but the housing supply and affordability problem likely requires a much larger scale solution.  Alex Armlovich coined the term “Missing Massive” to highlight the need to build taller and denser in those transit-served, amenity-rich, opportunity-proximate places where demand supports more housing.  As we’ve pointed out at City Observatory, by definition, taller, higher density buildings require that less land be redeveloped to produce any given number of new housing units.

“Missing middle” is a good place to start, and is a great way to add some density, and improve the range of housing choices in many neighborhoods.  But it we’re really going to tackle the housing affordability problem at scale, it will likely require some discontinuous leaps forward in key locations.  Housing policy should fill the voids for both missing middle and missing massive housing.

Must Read

“Safe systems” is being sabotaged.  This is a must, must read.  Kea Wilson, writing at Streetsblog, steps back from day-to-day reporting to offer a powerful perspective on ways in which the “safe systems” approach to road safety is being diluted and distorted by the dominant paradigm of car-centric planning.  In principle, safe systems is a well-ordered set of priorities for changing how we approach the construction and management of roads.  In practice, most state transportation departments and their local partners mouth the words, but haven’t changed their policies or investments.

And, as Wilson points out, the rhetoric of safe streets is being appropriated and bastardized.  Just as the term “multi-modal” is glibly used by highway departments to greenwash a multi-billion dollar highway widening project that includes a token pedestrian path, the term “shared responsibility” is used to evade responsibility.

The trouble with “shared responsibility,” of course, is that it says nothing about our respective ability to save lives — or how that “responsibility” should be shared relative to our respective power and influence.

Highway agencies still overwhelmingly treat safety as an “education” or “awareness” challenge, to be treated with feeble and often insulting, victim-blaming advertising and slogans.  And meanwhile, the real resources flow to making cars move faster, not making roads safer.  As Wilson argues:

It’s great — if painfully overdue — that America has finally realized that traffic violence is a systemic problem with systemic solutions. If we can’t advance the conversation beyond that astonishingly low bar, though, the Safe Systems approach will become just another way for powerful people to keep passing the buck to the “safe road users” piece of the puzzle — and the powerless will keep unsuccessfully shouldering the weight of a “responsibility” that they never had any hope of carrying in the first place.

If you want to move the safety conversation forward, please read Kea Wilson’s excellent essay.

How the infrastructure bill is aggravating climate change.  The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (aka the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law) represented a major federal commitment to boost the nation’s capital spending.  The law talked about opportunities to use these funds to help deal with pressing problems like climate change, but have left actual decisions about where to spend the money largely up to the states.  A new analysis from Transportation for America shows that a huge share of these funds have been plowed into subsidizing highway expansion projects.

Transportation for America reports:

Instead of using the historic funding levels to give people alternatives to congestion, pollution, and car dependency, our analysis finds that states have designated over $33 billion in federal dollars (over 25 percent of analyzed funds) toward projects that expand road capacity, doubling down on a strategy that has failed time and time again.

This problem is compounded by a relatively slow roll out of spending for transit, compared to a very aggressive rate of spending on road projects:  about 64 percent of highway formula funds have already been allocated by states, while only 20 percent of transit funds have gone out.  Vesting discretion on how to spend infrastructure funds with agencies that are either in denial about climate change, or unwilling to even measure and report their carbon footprint, has produced predictable results:  more subsidies to driving that will only lead to more traffic, more congestion, and more greenhouse gas emissions.

State land use reform as a critical climate strategy.  Climate change strategies lean heavily on the “technical fix”—the idea that new technologies will eliminate the need for any of us to live our lives any differently.  A new report from the Rocky Mountain Institute argues that changing state land use policies can contribute both to achieving greenhouse gas reductions, and addressing fundamental issues of housing affordability and equity.

RMI analysis shows enacting state-level land use reform to encourage compact development can reduce annual US pollution by 70 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2033. This projection, based on 2023 data, underscores the potential for significant impact within a decade. It would deliver more climate impact than half the country adopting California’s ambitious commitment to 100% zero-emission passenger vehicle sales by 2035.

The key policies that would support compact development hinge on more housing in places where it is easier to live without a car.    RMI calls for  ending exclusionary zoning; deregulating and pricing parking; eliminating minimum lot sizes, unit sizes, and setback requirements; legalizing accessory dwelling units (ADUs); and building permitting reform.  Housing in dense neighborhoods addresses the affordability problem in two ways:  it tends to drive down rents, and also lowers the amount residents have to spend on cars and gasoline to meet basic transport needs.  As RMI says, reforming land use to encourage more compact development is a win-win for affordability and climate.

Anti-trust law and local food access.  The Federal Trade Commission has come out in opposition to the proposed merger of two of the nation’s largest grocers, Kroger and Albertsons.  As NPR reports, the FTC is concerned the merger would be bad for consumers and workers, increasing the market power of the combined company to set prices and limit wage growth.  But there’s another wrinkle as well:  the two chains have overlapping stores—some across the street from one another—in many metro areas.  The merged company plans to achieve “efficiencies” by consolidating stores in these markets, which means less choice and less accessibility to consumers.

Kroger (blue) & Albertson (yellow) markets (Business Insider)

In all, Kroger and Albertson’s have said they will sell off 650 stores to other chains, but its far from clear how viable those spun-off stores will be in the long term.  After an earlier merger with Safeway, Albertsons sold off a bunch of stores to competitors who weren’t economically viable, and ended up buying many of them back.  Anything that reduces the total number of grocery stores, and lessens competition in this sector, is likely to affect consumers, who will have to travel further, and have fewer choices.