What City Observatory did this week

1. Our 5th Anniversary.  October 17 marked 5 years since we started publishing our research and commentary at City Observatory. We reflect back on five years of work, and thank all those who made it possible, and especially you, our readers.

2. Rites of Way. A complex set of laws and customs, some legislated and enforced, but many unwritten, govern the way we use public space. For a century, we’ve progressively warped these rules to favor car movement. But there’s a lot we can do to redefine the priorities and informal rules that govern public spaces, notably urban roads. Simply erasing the center lines on urban streets, for example, effectively forces drivers to negotiate the use of space with other road users, rather than assuming they have unfettered rights on their side of a line. Experience in other countries shows that there are many possible regimes to guide how we make use of shared spaces; putting greater responsibility on individuals to look out for others, rather than commandeer the “right of way” could make the urban realm safer and more pleasant.

3. More capacity just creates more traffic. The engineering profession proffers the naive belief that car traffic is like a kind of incompressible liquid:  If you constrain it in one place, it will flow out elsewhere. That incorrect analogy is regularly used to argue against projects that reduce car capacity. But time and again, when we reduce the road space dedicated to cars, traffic mostly goes away. That’s happened again in New York where the “Miracle on 14th Street” (eliminating through car movements has sped buses, without any impact on adjacent streets), and is likely to happen again when Seattle finally starts charging tolls on its new $3 billion deep bore tunnel under downtown. It’s time we thought of urban freeways and arterials as creating congestion, rather than relieving it.

Must read

1. More on the the Miracle on 14th Street:  No gridlock on 13th and 15th Streets.  We (like others) are celebrating the success of New York City’s speeding bus service on 14th Street by dedicating more right of way to buses. Critics fretted that banning cars on 14th would produce gridlock on parallel streets like 13th and 15th. With the experiment in place, the verdict is now in. The critics were wrong.
Travel monitoring firm Inrix checked its records before and after implementation of the “bus only policy” on 14th Street and found trivially small changes in traffic speeds, with declines ranging from 0.1 to 0.4 miles per hour, which Inrix regards as statistically insignificant. They conclude:
. . . initial congestion fears appear misplaced. According to INRIX data, the 14th St busway had no discernible performance changes to neighboring roads.
Can we just say what a big deal this is?  One of America’s leading traffic monitoring firms (one which we’ve occasionally excoriated for exaggerating congestion costs) says that closing a major urban thoroughfare to private car traffic had no negative effect on traffic congestion.  If you want less congestion in cities, you should be restricting car capacity, not building more.
2. Speed Cameras save lives. New York’s Legislature has authorized a big increase in the number of school zone speed cameras, and importantly extended their hours of operation. The effect has been fast and dramatic: The number of crashes and injuries in the first week of school in New York City is down by roughly one-quarter from the previous two years. StreetsblogNY quotes State Senator Andrew Gounardes:
“Speed cameras work. Period. They change driver behavior and cause people to slow down, protecting New Yorkers from injury and death in traffic collisions.”
3.  Steve Higashide: Demand more from the transportation bill. Transit Center’s Steve Higashide has a no holds barred take on proposed congressional transportation legislation. In the face of a growing climate crisis, it’s essentially business-as-usual and highway widening as usual. The $287 billion bill has a $10 billion sop for those concerned about the fact that transportation is now the largest source of greenhouse gases (and is growing), but as Higashide points out:
The new bill “acknowledges” climate change in the same way that sending a pallet of bottled water to Flint, Michigan, “acknowledges the lead crisis.”
While the bill nominally earmarks $10 billion to deal with climate change, a significant share of that will be used to protect existing infrastructure from ongoing climate change (i.e. flood proofing roads) rather than reducing vehicle miles traveled and carbon emissions.  The bulk of the bill, which is as yet un-funded, represents a continuing subsidy for more road-building, more driving, and more climate destruction. Higashide has a new book:, “Better Buses, Better Cities.” It should be on the congressional required reading list.

New Knowledge

Redlining’s fading relevance.  In the 1930s, the federal government codified the existing widespread racialized attitudes about local housing markets when the federal Home Owners Loan Corporation  published maps delineating desirable and undesirable neighborhoods.  (While the Feds appropriately get the rap for this, its important to note that the maps were largely compiled by local real estate professionals hired under the New Deal, and reflected established local biases). The legacy of redlining cast a long shadow over those neighborhoods, and led to systematic disinvestment for decades.  But today, eight decades later, are these redlined areas relevant to policy.  Several presidential candidates have proposed targeting federal investment into areas redlined in the 1930s.

Brookings Institution’s Andre Perry and David Harshberger question the relevance of 1930s redlining to 2020 policy-making. They analyze the location and demographics of these redlined areas today, using the most recent available Census data. When they were drawn, redlined areas closely mirrored neighborhoods with high levels of black residents.  But that’s no longer true today, as Perry and Harsberger’s analysis shows:

More generally, the redlined areas are no longer a good match with the hardest hit neighborhoods in US metro areas. Many formerly redlined areas have changed so dramatically–either been depopulated, or revitalized, and no longer hold many poor families. Conversely, areas that weren’t poor in the 1930s (think the first-tier suburbs developed in the 1940s and 1950s) hold a significant number of low income households. As a result, using old-timey redlining maps to define today’s target areas doesn’t make much sense.  And there are other issues as well: American population was very differently distributed across metro areas eight decades ago; while rustbelt cities have large redlined areas, Western and Sunbelt cities have very few.  While redlining was a real factor contributing to urban disinvestment then, those old maps are a poor guide to where we need to invest now.

Andre Perry and David Harshberger, America’s formerly redlined neighborhoods have changed, and so must solutions to rectify them, Brookings Institution, Metropolitan Policy Program, October 14, 2019.

In the news

Treehugger highlighted our critique of the Transportation Research Board’s report calling for even more spending on highway widening, which will lead to more driving and increased greenhouse gas emissions.