Bye Containers, Again

Once again, Portland loses container service:  the economic effects will be minimal.

Economic development has long been obsessed with “cargo cult” thinking:  the idea that economic prosperity is caused by ports and highways moving raw materials and finished goods.  That may have been partly true in the 19th Century, but today the sources of prosperity are quite different, having primarily to do with a city’s ability to aggregate and concentrate talent, to innovate and to learn.  But many still cling to the simpler and more tangible icons of the past, like container ships and railroads.

This week, the Port of Portland announced that it would be ending container service at its Terminal 6 on the Columbia River.  It is the second time in a decade that the Port has shuttered its money losing container terminal.

Containers in Portland:  A declining and small business

Buoyed by a brief period of panicky shipping during Covid-induced supply chain disruptions, Portland enjoyed a brief, but entirely temporary spurt of container traffic.

The truth is that Portland was never more than a bit player in the West Coast container market, peaking at about 2 percent of all West Coast container movements, and with a steadily decline in activity from the 1990s.  Container traffic has increasingly gravitated to “load center” ports, like Los Angeles-Long Beach which have facilities to handle the largest container ships, and where huge facilities and frequent sailings mean that shippers get much faster and more reliable service, and can reap economies of scale.

For smaller ports like Portland, containers are a money-losing proposition:  The Port of Portland lost $100 million on the container business over a decade before shutting down its container terminal in 2015.  Having lost $14 million on its container operations in the past year, the Port is once again pulling the plug because it would have had to subsidize traffic to the tune of almost $100 per container to stay in the business.

The pandemic was an extraordinary moment when the global supply chains seized up, and that produced a spasm of activity to try to quickly find new ways of getting goods to market.  Congestion and backlogs at major ports prompted shippers to find workarounds, leading to a brief surge in business for minor ports, like Portland.  But in the past two years, conditions in the transportation and logistics markets have normalized.  International freight rates, which shot up during the pandemic, have collapsed.  Trucking activity has similarly gone into decline.  And there’s plenty of capacity, especially in the nation’s load-center ports, to handle traffic more efficiently than ever.  And going forward, the ever-growing size of containerships will further concentrate activity at the biggest ports.

An economic non-event

The good news is that container traffic isn’t particularly important to the health of the Portland economy.  Moving physical stuff has long since stopped being a determining factor in economic growth.

Over the past decade, Portland’s economy has outperformed the US economy and the typical large metropolitan area, with total gross regional product increasing by nearly 34 percent, according to the Brookings Institution’s Metro Monitor.

One of the shibboleths of economic development is that we live in a “freight-dependent” economy.  And while the Covid pandemic revealed the vulnerability of the global logistic system to extraordinary disruptions, these have proved, like toilet paper shortages, to be short-lived.  To a certain breed of economic developers, it will always be hard to let go of the “cargo-cult” view of economic prosperity, but for most metropolitan areas, their long term success will hinge on the education level of their population, the entrepreneurship of their businesses and their ability to innovate new ideas, not the presence of container cranes.

Another thing IBR doesn’t want you to know: 30 seconds over Portland

The $7.5 Billion Interstate Bridge Replacement project will save the average commuter just 30 seconds in daily commute time

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.

Oregon and Washington DOTs claim that a massively widening I-5 bridge and approaches is needed to fight congestion between Portland and Vancouver—but their own traffic modeling shows the project will make almost no difference in average commute times.

As we wrote last month, via a public records request, No More Freeways has obtained a copies of previously confidential IBR planning documents that have key facts about the project which would build a 5-mile long, 10- or 12-lane wide highway between Portland and Vancouver, t at cost of $7.5 billion (and likely more).  One of the reasons they kept these documents secret was because they were afraid that a “leak” of the document would adversely affect public opinion.  The project’s previously secret risk register reported:

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

What is it, exactly that they don’t want you to know?

Spending $7.5 billion will save the average commuter 30 seconds a day

Well for one thing, spending $7.5 billion (or more) will do virtually nothing to speed up commutes in the project area.  The project’s draft Environmental Impact Statement presents data on how far people will travel, and how many hours they will spend traveling. The project’s traffic studies, based on the Metro Regional Travel Demand Model, compare how much time we’ll spend traveling in 2045 depending on whether the IBR project is built (the “Build” scenario) or not build (the “No Build” scenario.). These estimates are summarized for the project area (the portion of the region involving travel affected by the project).  This comes from Draft Environmental Impact Statement’s chapter on travel.

Source: Unreleased Draft Environmental Impact Statement

From this data its easily possible to figure out how much faster this multi-billion dollar project will make things.  For example, in the “No-Build” scenario, we’ll drive about 14.3 million miles per day, and spend about 436,000 hours making those trips.  If you divide the number of miles by the hours of travel, you get an average speed of 33 miles per hour (in the No-Build). To be sure, in in the “Build” scenario we would drive almost the same number of miles (14.2 million) but spend about 12,000 fewer hours doing so, which results in an increase in speed of . . . 0.4 miles per hour.

No-Build Build
Miles per Day   14,291,000   14,211,000
Hours per Day        436,400        424,900
Miles Per Hour               33.0           33.4
Average Trip                7.1            7.1
Time (Minutes:Seconds)          13:00         12:45

If that doesn’t sound like much, that’s because it isn’t.  That’s well within the likely margin of error of Metro’s ability to forecast future traffic and travel times, which means in statistical sense, the difference is really zero.  But even if it is the 0.4 miles per hour improvement that IBR claims, should we care?

To put that gain in context, let’s look at the typical commute trip in the region. According to Metro, the average one-way commute in Portland is 7.1 miles.  By speeding trips up from 33.0 miles per hour to 33.4 miles per hour, the Interstate Bridge Replacement Project will shave about 15 seconds off the average commute.  On a daily basis, that works out to a savings of 30 seconds.  Is that worth $7.5 billion, and probably a great deal more?  You be the judge.

If anything, the Metro model, as used by IBR, probably understates the effectiveness of the project, because it fails to fully account for the effects of induced demand:  adding more capacity will likely encourage additional travel, and that added travel will cause congestion to return (and travel times to degrade) to pre-construction levels.  The widely documented “fundamental law of road congestion” underscores the futility and waste of trying to solve congestion by adding more road capacity; the science is neatly summarized by the brilliant Australian show “Utopia.”

Want to know more?

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.

States need honest reporting on transportation greenhouse gases

You can’t tell if you’re winning or losing if you don’t keep score, especially when it comes to transportation greenhouse gas emissions.

But a close look at the data shows we’re not making much progress, and not making it fast enough, primarily because we’re driving more.

Your state highway department is likely to be in denial about these facts, and doing its best to hide them from the public.

California is ahead of most states in thinking hard about how to tackle climate change.

Bloviating about tactics, and simply repeating future goals is no substitute for frank reporting of current GHG levels; Is your state accurately reporting current transportation greenhouse gas emissions?

California:  A model for tracking transportation greenhouse gases

The Air Resources Board is tracking how well California is doing in reducing transportation greenhouse gases per capita and driving since 2000.

For a time, it looked the state was doing pretty well.  Between 2004 and 2012, California recorded significant declines in per capita driving (down about 10 percent from 2005 levels) and greenhouse gas emissions (down 12 percent).  But in the last decade, both driving, and to a lesser extent, greenhouse gases have rebounded.  Per person driving is now about 4 percent greater than it was in 2005, and, as a result, greenhouse gas emissions per capita are down barely 2 percent.

The Air Resources Board triangulates its estimates of annual levels of VMT and GHG using a combination of fuel sales data, vehicle registration data and detailed information on the fuel economy of all the light duty vehicles in California.  It’s also noteworthy that these emissions estimates are compiled not by a road-building or transportation planning agency, but by the state’s air quality regulator.

The good news about the California figures are that they actually have a report that is tracking greenhouse gases and VMT—this report provides policy makers with a clear idea of how much progress the state is actually making toward its greenhouse gas reduction goals.  California’s data underscores the important of vehicle miles traveled (GHGs are up when VMT is up, and down when VMT is down).  California made great progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions per capita for almost a decade, but since 2012, increasing travel has resulted in an emissions rebound (due to a collapse in fuel prices after 2013).  The good news is that emissions are decoupling (slowly) from VMT, an indication that cars are becoming cleaner.

You can’t say if you’re winning or losing if you don’t keep score

Other places, who nominally claim to care about climate, aren’t even bothering to report these trends.  As we’ve pointed out, the Portland Metro Regional Transportation Plan, which for a decade has set ambitious targets for reducing driving and greenhouse gases, simply failed to report any data about trends in greenhouse gas emissions (they went up, substantially, according to three separate inventories–none of which were mentioned in the Metro climate monitoring report.

There’s also the Oregon Department of Transportation, which also claims to have a climate strategy.  But its progress report also leaves out date on VMT and greenhouse gas emission trends.

US DOT is insisting states track greenhouse gas emissions.  It’s a pretty simple accounting requirement, and doesn’t have any real teeth, by highway agencies are bristling at the thought of having to do this.  Some 22 states are actually suing USDOT to block the requirement and a Texas judge has ruled that the requirement exceeds DOT’s authority.  Ultimately, you can’t know where you’re going, or whether you’re getting there, if you don’t actually measure your progress.  But as a rule state DOTs simply don’t want to know—and they don’t want anyone else to know—that transportation is the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions, and that they’re doing little or nothing to take responsibility for the problem—much less solve it.  You can’t see if you’re winning or losing if you don’t keep score, and for state DOT’s, if they don’t keep score, no one can prove they’re losing.


The Week Observed, April 12, 2024

Must Read

The high, high cost of “affordable housing.”  The Voice of San Diego takes a look at the pricetag of several affordable housing projects in California and finds they’re pushing and breaking through the million-dollar a unit mark.  Across the 17 projects it examined, average costs were  $574,000 a unit.

$911,000 per unit. Voice of San Diego

Many factors contributed to higher prices.  For one project, parking added about $40,000 per unit to project costs.  Most projects are funded by a complicated array of federal tax credits and state and local subsidies, which add delay and overhead costs to arranging projects.  In California, workers on projects get paid “prevailing wages” that drive costs up further.  And local governments typically require even affordable housing developers to underwrite additions or upgrades to adjacent streets and infrastructure.

Generational Metropolitan Areas.  Oregon economist Josh Lehner has used Census data to develop a ranking of the top ten Metro areas for each of several demographic groups, ranging from boomers to Gen Z.  Different regions of the country have different concentrations of each generation.  The greatest contrast is betwen Gen Z (mostly in the Sunbelt (except Grand Rapids), and Boomers (mostly in industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest).


New Knowledge

Income and housing prices.  Why is housing more expensive in some cities than others.  A recent web-post from Kasey Klimes looks at the statistical relationship between a number of housing and income statistics for the nation’s metropolitan areas, can comes up with some interesting results.

A key finding is that there’s a strong statistical relationship between median home values and aggregate income per unit of housing.  Median home values tend to be highest in those places where total incomes, relative to the housing stock, are the highest.  San Jose and San Francisco are outliers, both in terms of median home values–over $900,000–and aggregate levels of income per housing unit (more than $150,000 in San Francisco, and more than $180,000 in San Jose).  Overall, the correlation coefficient is 0.9, indicating that variations in income per housing unit statistically explain about 80 percent of the observed variation in median house prices across these large metro areas.

The strong correlation between income per housing unit and median home prices points to two possible ways to lower home prices.  One is to have lower incomes, which is hardly attractive.  Places like St. Louis and Detroit have inexpensive homes because incomes are so low.  The preferable way to address affordability is to increase the denominator by adding more homes.  As Klimes argues:

 The only real way to reduce housing costs is to build more housing for that aggregate income to flow into.”Build more housing” isn’t a singular policy, but a coherent suite of policies that begins to address the challenge on a variety of regulatory fronts. That suite includes eliminating single-family zoning (as recently enacted in Minneapolis and Portland), abolishing parking minimums, and updating building codes to allow more efficient use of floor plates with single-stair apartment buildings.

The data presented here are a helpful reminder that demand, in the form of income levels will play a key role in determining home prices, and that in the face of high incomes, cities can either let rising incomes bid up a fixed or slowly growing supply of income, or achieve greater affordability by allowing a rapid expansion of housing supply.

In the News

Streetsblog published a guest commentary by City Observatory’s Joe Cortright, calling out the way in which the “Reconnecting Communities” program is being used to subsidize a massive freeway expansion project in Portland.

The Week Observed, April 26, 2024

What City Observatory Did This Week

Earth Day: Oregon is spending billions to widen freeways in a move that will only worsen the increase in greenhouse gases from transportation.  Transportation is the leading source of greenhouse gases in Oregon (and in the US) and unlike other sectors, GHGs from transportation are increasing.  That’s the opposite of what’s called for in the state’s much ballyhooed climate plans.

Once upon a time, Portland demolished the freeway that was here. What happened to those courageous leaders?

And Oregon’s Department of Transportation is doubling down, planning to spend more than $10 billion widening highways in Metro Portland, a measure that will only increase greenhouse gas emissions, and further lock the region’s into decades of unsustainable, car-dependent transportation, at exactly the time when investments in lower carbon living are needed.  Freeways are fossil-fuel infrastructure.

Must Read

Science says:  Make cities less car-dependentScientific American has a bold editorial, eschewing the usual “technical fix” ideas for solving climate change, and arguing that a linch-pin of climate policy has to be about making cities more livable, walkable and bikeable.  

This opinion piece nicely makes the connections between transportation and land use, calling for fundamental changes in how we travel, and building communities that enable less car dependence.

We could eliminate free parking. We could set up congestion pricing in dense city centers, as New York City plans to do, and use the proceeds to fund public transit alternatives. And we can add more bike lanes and open streets, which are cheaper to put in place and provide immediate benefits.

In much of the U.S., it is still illegal to build anything denser than single-family homes, and housing often has minimum parking requirements that take up valuable real estate. If we encourage cities to build duplexes, triplexes and apartment buildings, especially near transit hubs, fewer people will need cars.

Car dependence is deeply rooted in policies and institutions, and is so pervasive that it blinds many of us to the opportunities to rethink the way we live, as opposed to simply try to tweak technology to avoid deeper and more lasting change.

A warning about the effects of “inclusionary” housing requirements, Seattle edition.  Seattle is considering a major revision of its comprehensive plan, and Sightline’s Dan Bertolet has some keen analysis and sage advice, focusing mostly on how to expand housing supply:  getting rid of parking requirements, allowing more apartments in more places, and promoting “middle housing” are all keys.  And when it comes to middle housing, Bertolet has an important warning:  don’t burden small-scale, price-sensitive housing with inclusionary requirements.

For several years, Seattle has imposed a “Mandatory Housing Affordability” (MHA) requirement on new multi-family housing in many city neighborhoods.  In effect, MHA functions as a tax on new apartment construction (either in the form of requiring below market rents on some units, or an alternative cash payment to the city).  The negative effect on new construction clearly shows from data about Seattle’s MHA program:

Bertolet concludes:

imposing MHA with Seattle’s future middle housing upzones would undermine the intent of the upzoning in the first place. It would suppress middle housing construction, depriving residents of less expensive housing choices and prolonging the city’s dire housing shortage that harms those with the least, the most. Seattle policymakers can maximize all the benefits of middle housing with one simple move: don’t impose MHA on it.

Optimal Serendipity.  Writing at “The Deleted Scenes” Addison Del Mastro has a keen observation on the deep monetary and personal costs of exurban living.  When things are so spread out, every destination can be had only at a considerable cost in time and travel expense, and this of necessity requires planning and circumscribes what one can do.  As he writes:

There is simply no way to capture that whimsy and serendipity of hey, I got home a little late, let’s go out to dinner tonight! without a certain amount of density to support a sufficient number of enterprises. Density is proximity. Proximity is serendipity. Distance is loneliness and isolation. We want all of these things at once—a choice of restaurants and shopping, wide empty roads, free easy parking right in front of every destination, large houses with private yards—but we simply can’t have all those things.And while density may not guarantee them, they are not possible without it.

The density of desirable destinations, of opportunities to do things, to meet people and have abundant choices are the hallmark of great cities.  It’s an insight that’s overlooked in the quest to find cheaper housing in the “drive til you qualify” exurbs.

In the News

City Observatory’s Joe Cortright is quoted in The Oregonian‘s coverage of Earth Day, looking at why the state is  failing in its efforts to reduce transportation greenhouse gas emissions.

I don’t think we’re being honest with ourselves about how little progress we’re making on greenhouse gasses and climate. And we’re not being nearly ambitious enough in thinking about how we can change how things work.”

The Week Observed, April 19, 2024

What City Observatory Did This Week

A teachable moment: Free Ice Cream Day.  Traffic was lined up around the block last Tuesday at your local Ben and Jerry’s, for the same reason roadways are clogged most weekday afternoons:  the price is too low.

April 16 was Ben and Jerry’s annual free ice cream day.  In addition to free ice cream, they’re also giving a free lesson in why American roads are perpetually clogged, and why state highway departments are (a) always broke, and (b) always think they need to build more and more and more lanes for traffic.

Charging a fair price for using roads, just like charging a fair price for ice cream, is the best way to allocate resources and eliminate lines.  In a few months, Manhattan will run the experiment of starting to charge for the scarce and valuable space on its streets, which should be another teachable moment.  Stay tuned.

The end of the cargo cult?  For the second time in less than a decade, the Port of Portland is shutting down its money losing T-6 container terminal.  Container operations were revived to handle a spurt of shipping during the pandemic, but as supply chains have normalized, the demand for services to secondary ports like Portland has collapsed. 

Container ships are a potent symbol of global commerce, and many assume you can’t have a great city or successful economy without freight infrastructure.  The reality is that in the 21st Century, the factors driving economic success are bound up with less visible factors:  notably a region’s endowment of human talent and its ability to generate new knowledge.  Portland never accounted for more than about 2 percent of West Coast container traffic, and after losing $14 million on container operations in the last year, wisely chose to fold.  The good news is the regional economy will scarcely notice:  Portland has consistently outperformed the US economy, and most other large US metro areas in the years since container service first stopped.  Nostalgia isn’t an economic strategy.

Must Read

The future of downtown:  More than just a workplace.  Richard Florida has a column in Toronto’s Globe and Mail highlighting a key change in the dynamics of downtown. Going forward, downtown’s won’t simply be workplaces, but they’ll be places to socialize, have fun and live.

. . . the downtown of the future will be less about working and shopping and much more about living, socializing and consuming experiences. “Downtowns must deliver opportunities for fun, discovery, and beauty to appeal to a broad audience of city dwellers,” the Gensler survey found.

What it all comes down to is that work is no longer the No. 1 reason people go downtown. If it hopes to thrive as a great city in our new era, downtown Toronto must become a safer and more balanced place to live, raise children, and, most of all, to experience new things and connect with others.

Think of it as the Petula Clark vision as a place for people to socialize:   . . things’ll be great when you’re downtown, no finer place for sure; Downtown everything’s waiting for you.

Single-stair buildings and fire safety:  Writing at Greater Greater Washington, Payton Chung takes head-on concerns that single-stair buildings are more dangerous that requiring two stairways.  Building codes frequently require two separate exits for multi-story residential buildings, which essentially requires a central hallway, lower space efficiency, and units that face only one-side of the building.  But Chung argues that the second stairway is an increasingly anachronistic and unnecessary requirement, given improvements in other technology, particularly smoke detectors and sprinkler systems.

Some people’s initial fear is that requiring only one staircase would roll back safety regulations to cut costs. But in fact, single-stair reforms have the potential to get more people into safer buildings. Multifamily buildings are now particularly safe from fire deaths, largely due to building code requirements for sprinklers. The National Fire Protection Association notes that in 1980, house and multifamily fires had comparable chances of causing deaths; by 2022, the death rate for multifamily fires had fallen 17% while those for house fires had actually risen.

Because second stair requirements drive up costs, they mean that fewer, new and safer buildings get built, and more people end up living in structures that are less safe (either older buildings or new buildings built to the less stringent safety requirements that apply to townhouses and single family homes).

A consumer’s guide to promotional stadium studies.  While it’s billed as a resource for reporters, everyone ought to pay attention to a new report from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media that dissects the troubling and arcane world of sports stadium studies.  Across the nation, local and state governments are regularly asked to dump hundreds of millions in tax-funded subsidies into constructing new stadia, purportedly because of the huge economic payback they provide.  The trouble is that no objective, peer-reviewed science supports the claim that stadia actually add to regional economies; at best they tend to re-distribute income among local entertainment businesses.  That hasn’t stopped a cottage industry of consultants from ginning up impressive sounding claims that stadia will add millions or even billions to the local economy—something we call “hagiometry.”  The Shorenstein Center’s report provides a clear-eyed and readable synthesis of the flaws underlying these studies, and is a must read for any community contemplating a stadium project.

New Knowledge

Educational Attainment in America Mapped. The educational attainment of the population is one of the key drivers of metropolitan success, and an indicator of neighborhood vitality.  TCU professor Kyle Walker is a master of the data analysis program “R” and has used some of the latest tools to generate a detailed, dot-density map showing the concentration of population by educational attainment, using the latest American Community Survey data.

The map shows those with bachelors and masters degrees as cooler, blue or green dots, and those with less education as yellow, orange or red dots.  The maps clearly illustrate those places that skew heavily either to more or less educated populations.  The map of Chicago, for example, shows a strong concentration of well educated adults in the city’s downtown and Northside, and lower levels of education to the South and West.

Walker’s map encompasses the entire nation, and allows users to quickly zoom to any particular geography.  It’s a great resource, and a tour-de-force illustration of the power of the R program.



The Week Observed, April 5, 2024

What City Observatory did this week

Thirty seconds over Portland:  Spending $7.5 billion on a freeway widening project will save the typical affected commuter about 30 seconds a day, according to the Interstate Bridge Replacement Project’s yet-to-be-released Environmental Impact Statement.  IBR officials have said they fear leaks of the EIS could create a negative perception of the project, and this is one of several likely reasons for their fear.

Oregon and Washington DOTs claim that a massively widening I-5 bridge and approaches is needed to fight congestion between Portland and Vancouver—but their own traffic modeling shows the project will make almost no difference in average commute times. The EIS claims that average traffic speeds in the project area will increase from 33.0 miles per hour in the “No-Build” scenario, to 33.4 miles per hour in the build scenario.  For a typical commute of 7.1 miles, that works out to a daily savings of 30 seconds per day.  Is that worth $7.5 billion?

The importance of honest accounting for transportation greenhouse gases.  You can’t tell if you’re winning or losing if you don’t keep score, especially when it comes to transportation greenhouse gas emissions.

But a close look at the data shows we’re not making much progress, and not making it fast enough, primarily because we’re driving more.  Your state highway department is likely to be in denial about these facts, and doing its best to hide them from the public.  California is ahead of most states in thinking hard about how to tackle climate change.  Its report reveals that the state made good progress for a decade, but since then has backslid, principally because of an increase in driving after oil prices collapsed in 2014.

Bloviating about tactics, and simply repeating future goals, is no substitute for frank reporting of current GHG levels: Is your state accurately reporting current transportation greenhouse gas emissions?

Must Read

The routine and regular deaths of thousands on the nation’s streets and roads are evidence of deep dysfunction in the traffic engineering profession.  As illustrated by the recent and prompt responses to airline safety concerns and a ship-hitting-the-span in Baltimore, some disasters provoke a quick and effective reaction.  Meanwhile, the far more common, and by any measure much more grievous daily slaughter on our roads is acknowledged, but then largely accepted, if not ignored.   Isabella Chu has a powerful indictment of this malaise in her guest commentary at Streetsblog.

The thing that causes death and injuries on American roads is cars. The way to reduce deaths and injuries is to reduce the dose of the hazard: cars. That means slower, smaller, and fewer cars. It means investing in meaningful alternatives to driving and making it possible to walk and take transit places without dealing with continual delay, noise, exhaust, and risk of blunt force trauma from cars. It means affording people outside of cars full personhood and treating their mobility and lives as more important than the convenience and property of motorists.

Where’s the fire?  How fire departments are undermining affordable, safe, livable cities.   Brad Hargreaves has a far reaching, well-researched and compelling analysis of how the myopia of the firefighting profession is colliding with efforts to promote road safety, increase affordable housing, and ease walkability. He argues:

For all the good they do, fire departments have increasingly emerged as a primary force preventing cities from embracing walkability, safer streets, transit, and affordable housing.

Historically, fire was one of the chief threats to life in cities, and indeed fires wiped out vast swaths of cities (as in the Great Chicago Fire and the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire).  Fire departments are deeply entrenched institutions with a particular worldview.  But actual fire-fighting is a vanishingly small part of what they do.  Fires represent about 4 percent of fire dispatches, car crashes make up almost half-again as many dispatches.  And crashes kill ten times a many Americans as structure fires.


But those shifting challenges have done little to change the worldview of firefighters, who cling to a narrow notion that promoting safety requires cities to be engineered to get big firetrucks quickly to structure fires.  Consequently, fire departments oppose many traffic calming measures, like roundabouts and road diets, which are proven to save lives by lowering speeds and lessening the probability and severity of crashes.  And fire departments play a key role in housing policies, frequently oppose key measures, like liberalizing “single stair” construction in 3-to-6 story multi-family housing—which would make housing much more affordable.  As Hargreaves points out:

. . . only 12% of all fire deaths—470 in 2022—occurred in apartments. When apartments do catch on fire, their occupants are more likely to survive than those in single family homes, as apartments are more likely to have interventions like sprinklers, non-combustible materials, and working fire alarms.

Fire departments have broadened their mandate to “emergency services,” but despite a long tradition of thinking about prevention as part of their responsibility when it comes to structure fires, they haven’t applied this same thinking to what is now the largest threat to life and limb in most American cities:  the car dominated landscape and transportation system.

NIMBY’s for rent control.  If you thought that historic preservation was the latest clever subterfuge for maintaining exclusionary zoning, time for an update.  Californians may vote on a ballot measure that would give cities wide authority to mandate rent controls.  While ostensibly a measure designed to help renters, at least one exclusionary suburb, Huntington Beach, has recognized that requiring strict rent controls on new multi-family housing would be an effective way to ban apartment construction—and evade state laws designed to expand housing supply.  The city’s Republican Councilman Tony Strickland explained the strategy, as reported by Politico:

“Statewide rent control is a ludicrous idea, but the measure’s language goes further, . . It gives local governments ironclad protections from the state’s housing policy and therefore overreaching enforcement.”

Strickland said Weinstein’s rent control measure would block “the state’s ability to sue our city” because Huntington Beach could slap steep affordability requirements on new, multi-unit apartment projects that are now exempt from rent control.

In practice, the Jacobin rallying cry that all housing should be affordable housing simply means that no housing gets built at all, which is exactly what exclusionary suburbs want. It’s a classic instance of horseshoe politics:  where NIMBYs of the left (seeking draconian rent control) and NIMBYs of the right, who simply want to exclude apartments, make common cause for a policy that restricts housing supply and aggravates affordability problems.


Moving the goalposts

The key to being on-time and under-budget:  Orwellian double-speak

Oregon DOT projects are always on-time and under budget–because the agency simply disappears its original schedules and budgets.

Delayed, half-finished projects are officially described as “On-time and on-budget”

Oregon DOT routinely hides its waste, mismanagement and incompetence

The last bits of fresh asphalt have been rolled out, there’s fresh gleaming paint marking the shoulders and centerline, new directional signs have been posted and at the intersections, new traffic signals have been installed. This new highway is just about ready for eager drivers. Just one more task remains. A crack team of Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) engineers carefully re-locate the project’s goalposts so that it can claim that everything’s gone according to plan.

In 2017, ODOT held the ribbon cutting ceremony for a portion of the Newberg-Dundee bypass, a new four-mile stretch of highway just outside Portland. It’s the agency’s biggest current construction project. Officiating were the Governor, local dignitaries, legislators and the media. As part of the announcement, the agency’s director, Matt Garrett, boldly claimed that ODOT had delivered the project “on-time and under budget.”


Matt Garrett:

“our state lawmakers showed great confidence and trust in the Oregon Department of Transportation by approving the then 2009 Jobs and Transportation Act–it directed $192 million dollars toward this project. And today, we repay that confidence by delivering this project on-time and under-budget.

Here’s the video of the ribbon cutting ceremony:

The trouble is that’s not even remotely true.

What local leaders cut the ribbon for in December 2017 was less than half a project.  ODOT had completed just four-miles of a proposed 11-mile long project.  And it had paved only two lanes of the four lanes (although its built bridges that could carry four lanes in the future). An ODOT progress report in 2016 described the project as follows:

The Newberg Dundee Bypass is an 11-mile, four-lane access controlled expressway around the cities of Newberg and Dundee. JTA funding is constructing Phase 1 of the Bypass. Phase 1 will construct 4 miles of a two-lane expressway from OR 219 in Newberg to OR 99W in Dundee.

That’s actually just a tiny fraction of the proposed bypass. Let’s review the history here:

At the time of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed Newberg-Dundee bypass (2003), total project costs were estimated at $222 million. Just two years later, after additional, more precise engineering analyses, the cost had ballooned 40 percent, to more than $311 million (Oregon Department of Transportation, 2005). By 2010, it was estimated that completing this project would require between $752 and $880 million (Federal Highway Administration and Oregon Department of Transportation, 2010). The project’s final environmental impact statement said that construction would start in 2015 and be finished in five years.

This kind of calculated prevarication about schedules and budgets is a well-established practice at the Oregon Department of Transportation. Former Director Matt Garrett repeatedly offered similar assurances about the failed plans to construct a $3 billion Columbia River Crossing. Even after the project was delayed for nearly two years (first, because it pursued an un-buildable design, and then had to be redesigned again, to provide adequate navigation clearance, he assured the public that it was “on schedule,” accomplishing this verbal sleight-of-hand by saying the project was on “the current schedule.” Again:  continually moving the goalposts to wherever the ball happens to be is the way that this Department of Transportation stays on schedule.  (And the revived project has a budget that has now ballooned to $7.5 billion and is likely to reach $9 billion).

The Department (and in this case its consultants, McKinsey and Company) were equally deceptive in 2017. At the behest of the Governor, the Oregon Transportation Commission hired McKinsey to conduct a management review of ODOT (based on delays and overruns for a variety of projects).

This pattern and practice of deceit and deception matters for a variety of reasons. First, unless one acknowledges one has a problem—that you’ve gone over budget and missed schedules—it’s impossible to imagine that you’ll undertake any corrective action. And ODOTs so-called management review represented more of a whitewash than any effort to improve practice. Second, it means that we ought to deeply discount any claims that the agency makes about how much it will cost and how long it might take to build any of its current proposed mega-projects.

Newberg-Dundee Bypass:  Decades behind schedule, over-budget and only half-built

A bit more history about the Newberg-Dundee Bypass, which ODOT celebrated on being complete “on time and underbudget” in 2071.  In fact, what we have today is a project that is in fact less than half-complete from what was originally announced. It’s both skinnier and shorter than originally announced. The first segment running from Newberg to Dundee has just two lanes paved in its four-lane right of way. The second segment, running from Newberg to Rex Hill, now referred to as Phase 2, is yet to be built or even financed.

In January of 2018, the Oregon Department of Transportation officially opened to traffic a portion of what’s called the Newberg-Dundee bypass, a road that serves as an alternative to US Highway 99W, a two-lane and four-lane highway that essentially forms the main streets of the two cities of Newberg and Dundee. As these two cities have grown, the combination of commercial traffic in the city’s downtowns and through traffic on highway 99W leads to frequent congestion. The project is also known as the “Pinot-Casino” highway, because it is the principal route from Portland to the region’s famous wine-growing region and to the state’s largest Native American casino.

Planning for the bypass has been underway for more than 15 years. The state struggled to come up with the money to pay for the project, and spend several years in an ultimately fruitless quest to persuade Australian road-builder Maquarie to undertake the project as a toll-financed public private partnership.


Happy Earth Day, Oregon! Widening Freeways Kills the Planet!

Despite legal pledges to reduce greenhouse gases to address climate change, Portland’s transportation greenhouse gas emissions are going up, not down. 

State, regional and city governments have adopted climate goals that purport to commit us to steadily reducing greenhouse gases, but we’re not merely failing to make progress, we’re going in the wrong direction. 

April 22 is Earth Day, and to celebrate, Oregon is moving forward with plans to billions dollars into three Portland area freeway widening projects. It isn’t so much Earth Day as a three-weeks late “April Fools Day.”  

If you’re serious about dealing with climate change, the last thing you should do is spend billions widening freeways.

An Abject Failure to Reduce Emissions from Driving

All of the objective data on greenhouse gas emissions shows we’re failing to meet our stated and legally adopted climate goals, chiefly because transportation emissions are increasing, and we’re driving more. Since 2013, transportation greenhouse gas emissions in Multnomah County have increased by 14 percent from x.x million tons per year to y.y million tons per year according to the City of Portland’s latest emissions inventory.  Transportation greenhouse gases declined during the pandemic, but have rebounded, and are now higher than in 2019.

The City’s inventory also shows that per capita transportation greenhouse gas emissions have increased, from 3.7 tons per capita in 2013, to 4.0 tons per capita in 2021.  Compared to the promises made to reduce greenhouse gases at a rate of nearly 2 percent per year in spelled out in the city’s 2015 Climate Action Plan, we’re not merely failing to make progress, we’re going rapidly in the wrong direction.

Two years ago, a New York Times story asked the question, “Can Portland be a climate leader without reducing driving?”  The Oregon Department of Transportation is answering that question with an emphatic “No.”  In the face of increasing driving and greenouse gas emissions, its planning a multi-billion dollar series of highway expansion projects that will only further increase greenhouse gas emissions.  That’s how they really celebrate Earth Day..

The New York Times, April 22, 2022

The Oregon Department of Transportation’s  plans to squander billions of dollars widening area highways plainly undermines State, regional, and city commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  Driving is the single largest source of climate pollution in Portland, and it has grown 20 percent, by more than a million tons per year, in the past five years.

Betraying Portland’s Legacy of Environmental Leadership

Nearly five decades after the city earned national recognition for tearing out a downtown freeway, it gets ready to build more. Back in the day, Portland built its environmental cred by tearing out one downtown freeway, and cancelling another–and then taking the money it saved to build the first leg of its light rail system. In place of pavement and pollution, it put up parks. Downtown Portland’s Willamette riverfront used to look like this:

Now the riverfront looks like this:

For decades, city and state political leaders have celebrated this legacy, and proudly touted our environmental leadership based on these bold and far-sighted steps. It is bitterly ironic, and tragic, that half a century after proving that removing freeways promotes livability, economic vitality and thriving cities, Oregon is now embarking on an unprecedented huge expansion of highway capacity, and exactly the time the climate crisis has come plainly into view.

Oregon DOT:  Celebrating Earth Day by Destroying the Planet

The environmental legacy of freeway removal is not merely forgotten, its being actively demolished by a transportation department that is hell-bent on building wider highways and increasing traffic and greenhouse gas emissions.  Between the $9 billion Interstate Bridge Replacement project, the $1.9 billion I-5 Rose Quarter Project, and a plan to rebuild and widen the I-205 Abernethy Bridge at $622 million, ODOT is embarked on a multi-billion dollar highway building spree.  And that’s just the beginning, because these projects have almost invariably gone over budget, and more expansions (a wider I-205 on either side of the Abernethy Bridge, and plans to widen the I-5 Boone Bridge) will generate even more debt and traffic.

ODOT’s plans  in the face of the state’s legally adopted requirement to reduce greenhouse gases. The state’s Greenhouse Gas Commission (of course, Oregon has one) reported that the state is way off track in achieving its statutorily mandate to reduce greenhouse gases by 10 percent from their 1990 levels by 2020.  The commission’s finding:

Key Takeaway: Rising transportation emissions are driving increases in statewide emissions.

As the updated greenhouse gas inventory data clearly indicate, Oregon’s emissions had been declining or holding relatively steady through 2014 but recorded a non-trivial increase between 2014 and 2015. The majority of this increase (60%) was due to increased emissions from the transportation sector, specifically the use of gasoline and diesel. The reversal of the recent trend in emissions declines, both in the transportation sector and statewide, likely means that Oregon will not meet its 2020 emission reduction goal. More action is needed, particularly in the transportation sector, if the state is to meet our longer-term GHG reduction goals.

And the independent induced travel calculator, calibrated to the latest, peer-reviewed scientific research on induced demand, shows that widening freeways will likely add tens of thousands of tons of greenhouse gas emissions.  In Oregon, as in many states, transportation is now the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, and cheaper gas is now prompting more travel. The decline in gasoline prices in mid-2014 prompted an increasing in driving and with it, an increase in crashes and carbon pollution.  Oregon’s vehicle miles traveled, which had been declining steadily, ticked up in 2015, as did its fatality rate. Building more freeway capacity–which will trigger more traffic–flies in the face of the state’s stated and legislated commitment to reducing greenhouse gases.

Building more capacity doesn’t solve congestion, it just increases traffic (and emissions)

The new word of the day is bottleneck: Supposedly, adding a lane or two in a few key locations will magically remedy traffic congestion. But the evidence is always that when you “fix” one bottleneck, the road simply gets jammed up at the next one. As the Frontier Group has chronicled, the nation is replete with examples of billion dollar boondoggle highways that have been sold on overstated traffic projections, and which have done little or nothing to reduce congestion.

As we all know, widening freeways to reduce traffic congestion has been a spectacular failure everywhere it has been tried. From the epic 23-lanes of the Katy Freeway, to the billion dollar Sepulveda Pass in Los Angeles, adding more capacity simply generates more traffic, which quickly produces the same or even longer of delays. The case for what is called induced demand is now so well established that its now referred to as “The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion.” Each incremental expansion of freeway capacity produces a proportionate increase in traffic. And not only does more capacity induce more demand, it leads to more vehicle emissions–which is why claims that reducing vehicle idling in congestion will somehow lower carbon emissions is a delusional rationalization.

If you’re a highway engineer or a construction company, induced demand is the gift that keeps on giving: No matter how much we spend adding capacity to “reduce congestion,” we’ll always need to spend even more to cope with the added traffic that our last congestion-fighting project triggered. While that keeps engineers and highway builders happy, motorists and taxpayers should start getting wise to this scam.

The good news is that there’s some pushback from folks who think more freeways isn’t a solution to anything. But a lot of the energy seems to be directed to a “me too” package of investments in token improvements to biking and walking infrastructure. As Strong Town’s Chuck Marohn warns, that’s a dead end for communities, the environment and a sensible transportation system; while he’s writing about Minnesota, the same case applies in Oregon:

Oh, they’ll pander to you. They’ll promise you all kinds of things….fancy new trains (to park and rides), bike trails (in the ditch, but not safe streets)….but this system isn’t representing you at all. It’s on autopilot. It’s got a long line of Rice interchanges and St. Croix bridge projects just ready to go when you give them the money. Don’t do it.

And as a final word, for those of you hoping to fund transit, pedestrian and cycling improvements out of increased state and federal dollars, I offer two observations. First, you are advocating for high-return investments in a financing system that does not currently value return-on-investment. You are going to finish way behind on every race, at least until we no longer have the funds to even run a race. Stop selling out for a drop in the bucket and start demanding high ROI spending.

Second, the cost of getting anything you want is going to be expansive funding to prop up the systems that hurt the viability of transit, biking and walking improvements. Every dollar you get is going to be bought with dozens of dollars for suburban commuters, their parking lots and drive throughs and their mindset continuing to oppose your efforts at every turn. You win more by defunding them than by eating their table scraps.

So when it comes to 21st Century transportation and Earth Day, maybe we should start with an environmental variation on the Hippocratic Oath:  “First, do no harm.” Portland was  smart enough to stop building freeways half a century ago, when environmentalism was in its infancy, and the prospects of climate change were not nearly so evident. Why aren’t we smart enough to do the same today?



A teachable moment: Ben & Jerry’s seminar in transportation economics

They’ll be lined up around the block because the price is too low–just like every day on urban roads

Your highway department is broke, and thinks it needs much bigger roads because it gives its produce away for free every day.

Charging a fair price for using roads, just like charging a fair price for ice cream, is the best way to allocate resources and eliminate lines.

You can learn everything you need to know about transportation economics today, just by helping yourself to a free ice cream cone. One day a year, and today is that day, Ben and Jerry are giving away free ice cream to everyone who comes by their stores. Whether you’re hankering for Cherry Garcia or Chunky monkey, you can now get it for absolutely zero price.

In addition to free ice cream, they’re also giving a free lesson in why American roads are perpetually clogged, and why state highway departments are (a) always broke, and (b) always think they need to build more and more and more lanes for traffic.

As you’re standing in line waiting for your “free” ice cream cone, give a little thought to the parallels between that line and your typical rush hour traffic jam.  In both cases, you’re waiting in line for the same reason–the price is too low, and demand is overwhelming supply.  This is the valuable lesson that Ben and Jerry are providing in the fundamentals of transportation economics.


You’ll note that unlike the average day at a Ben and Jerry’s, when you might have to wait in line a for a minute or two to get your favorite flavor, now you’re going to end up waiting twenty minutes, or a half hour, or possibly longer.  In terms of customers served and gallons scooped, this is going to be their biggest day of the year–last time they gave out a million scoops of ice cream worldwide.

You’ll probably also notice that most of the people standing in line are people who aren’t working nine-to-five.  Not many investment bankers or plumbers, but lots of students, moms with small kids, and people who have at least part of the day off from work. (Unlike waiting in traffic, where everyone is isolated in their cars, and experiencing aggravation and road rage, there’s a kind of social, party atmosphere at Ben and Jerry’s).

Make no mistake, although you’re not laying out any cash for your ice cream, you are paying for it: with your time. Let’s say that you’d pay $2.50 for that scoop of Phish Food (they’re a bit smaller than regulation on free cone day).  If you have to wait half an hour, and you value your time at say, $15.00 per hour, that $2.50 scoop really cost you something like $7.50.  It’s a safe bet that most of the people waiting in line value their time at something less than $5.00 an hour if they’re willing to wait that long for a “free” cone. Also, if you really want ice cream, and are pressed for time, there’s no way that you’re going to jump to the head of the line no matter how much you’d be willing to pay.

Free. It only works because it’s one day a year.

Substitute “freeway” for “free cone” and you’ve got a pretty good description of how transportation economics works. When it comes to our road system, every rush hour is like free cone day at Ben and Jerry’s.  The customers (drivers) are paying zero for their use of the limited capacity of the road system, and we’re rationing this valuable product based on people’s willingness to tolerate delays (with the result that lot’s of people who don’t attach a particularly high value to their time are slowing down things for everyone).

If Ben and Jerry’s were run by traffic engineers, instead of smart business people (albeit smart business people with a strong social minded streak), they’d look at these long lines and tell Ben & Jerry that they really need to expand their stores.  After all, the long lines of people waiting to get ice cream represent “congestion” and “delay,” that can only be solved by building more and bigger ice cream stores. And thanks to what you might call the “fundamental law of ice cream congestion” building more stores might shorten lines a little, but then it would likely prompt other people to stand in line to get free ice cream, or to go through the line twice. But, of course, with zero revenue Ben & Jerry would find it hard to build more stores.

Tomorrow, Ben and Jerry will go back to charging for ice cream. And the lines at their stores will disappear. In another year or two, Manhattan will be doing pretty much the same thing, in just a few months when it starts charging a price for private vehicles entering Manhattan. Road pricing can get rid of the lines of cars in New York City just as effectively as it does in front of ice cream shops.

No doubt Ben and Jerry generate enough good will, and probably attract a few new customers with their willingness to give up one day of revenue per year. And they’ll make more than enough money on the other 364 days of the year to cover their losses. But what works for ice cream one day a year is an epic failure when it comes to roads. As long as the price is zero, there will be more demand than you can handle, and you’ll be struggling to pay for the capacity that (you think) is needed.