What City Observatory did this week

1. No Deposit, No Return: Another lie to try and sell the $3 billion Columbia River Crossing. The state’s of Oregon and Washington spent nearly $200 million planning the failed Columbia River Crossing, a 12-lane, five mile long freeway project connecting Portland and Vancouver, Washington. The two states walked away from the project over irreconcilable disagreements over the project and its financing. The two states’ departments of transportation have urged a revival of the project, saying that if they don’t break ground in the next five years, they’ll have to repay the federal government $140 million. That’s panicked some political leaders into throwing an additional $44 million in new money after the $200 million already spent. And, unfortunately, there’s actually no requirement that the money be repaid:  Federal Highway Administration regulations specifically waive repayment if local governments choose the “No-Build” alternative as part of the environmental review. The original CRC proposal was plagued with mendacity: false traffic projections, designs for an unbuildable, and then too-low bridge. The revived project seems to be setting out in the same dishonest path.

2. To solve the housing shortange, build a landlord. There’s growing interest in policies that re-legalize so-called “missing middle housing”–duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes, and which make it easier to add accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in single family zones. All of these policies envision “gentle density” which add a few units in built up neighborhoods.  All well and good, but as City Observatory friend Ethan Seltzer argues in this commentary, all of these units will require new landlords. If we’re going to incentivize the development of duplexes and ADUs, we’ll want it to be relatively straightforward to be a landlord for such units. It’s likely that growing tenants rights efforts will make it more challenging and less desirable to be a landlord, which could have the unfortunate effect of discouraging the development of in-fill housing.

Must read

1. Why does it take so long to implement missing middle housing reform? Here’s a plaintive cry from Sightline Institute’s Dan Bertolet, who reflects on the protracted struggle to actually implement “missing middle” housing policies, by re-legalizing duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes, as well as accessory dwelling units, in single family residential zones.  Policy analysts and political leaders have increasing come to realize that this kind of “gentle density” is a logical way to easy housing shortages and improve housing affordability, and many cities and leaders have pledged to get on with such policies. But the going has been extremely slow; as Bertolet points out, its taken Seattle nearly five years to get close to implementing its decision to allow secondary cottages (accessory dwelling units); a forthcoming to legalize duplexes and row-houses, by Bertolet’s calculations, may take another five years, meaning that it may finally be implemented nearly a decade after everyone agreed it was a good idea.

The underlying problem? There’s just so much resistance built into the city politics and the local land use planning process. It has historically been dominated by NIMBY factions, and is designed to move slowly, and change little. The solution, as Bertolet notes, is to have state governments intervene. They tend not to be as politically compromised as cities, and state mandates and overrides can also help break through the “prisoners dilemma” concerns that individual neighborhoods have that they alone will shoulder increases in density. Even with strong state prodding, its still going to take a lot of work to move missing middle forward.

2. Buff Brown on the soft bigotry of low expectations in city climate strategies. Bloomington, Illinois is in many ways a model liberal college town; it skews blue politically, and like many cities has adopted a sustainability plan and endorsed the Paris climate accords. But like a lot of cities, its biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in transportation, and its losing ground. As transportation planner Buff Brown points out, the city’s vehicle miles traveled per capita have increased more than 11 percent in the past few years. And while the city recognizes it needs to lessen driving, and get more people transit, it’s actions don’t come close to measuring up to its rhetoric.  As Brown notes,

. . . the Action Plan has very weak goals with no math to tie them to the emission goals, and the lists of actions are orders of magnitude below what is necessary to meet these targets.

For example, the city’s goal is to increase transit ridership by 5 percent over the next six years, a gain of just 1 percent a year. This falls far short of what the city actually accomplished between 2002 and 2010, when transit ridership increased almost 9 percent per year.  And it also makes even more alarming the fact that the city has recorded a 6 percent decline in ridership in the past year. The city’s goal is at best a feeble one, far less ambitious than it actually managed in the past, and current performance is showing an decline that should be signaling a need for much bolder action.

At the same time transit ridership is declining, the city is moving forward with a plan to use local tax increment financing (TIF) monies to subsidize construction of a parking garage. The city is planning to spend $29 million in TIF funds to expand one parking garage by 200 spaces and build another with 379 spaces.  If cities are serious about climate change, this is plainly the wrong set of priorities.

3. Even down under, Induced demand. A new report from Australia confirms what science is showing worldwide:  building more highway capacity simply stimulates more driving, and does nothing to ease congestion. The report, commissioned by a Australian ride-hailing company Go-Get

City-dwelling Australians need to end their love affair with private cars and stop building new roads to beat congestion . . . building new roads or expanding existing infrastructure . . .  signals to drivers that commuting will be easier so more road users fill the newly created space, which is known as “induced demand”.

The solution for transportation problems is largely found in how we build our communities. Places that are dense, diverse and walkable enable people to meet many daily needs without car travel. And it turns out that these are exactly the kind of places for which there is robust demand.

“We find that communities that do have walkability, that have local cafes and amenities, they are the most in demand with consumers looking for a home, they have the highest house prices and demand.”

New Knowledge

It’s no accident: How we talk about crashes matters. Its commonplace for media reports of car crashes to describe them as “accidents,” and systematically downplay driver responsibility and instead blame victims.  If you wore dark clothing or were outside a market crosswalk, or it was dark, your injury or death is implicitly your fault.

A new study published by the Transportation Research Board, examines the way that common descriptions of traffic crashes affects reader perception of who’s responsible.  The authors presented subjects with three alternate text descriptions of a single car crash.  One version was pedestrian focused, a second version was driver focused and a third was driver focused and provided additional context about the frequency and location of car crashes. The key finding was the way in which the crash was described made a strong impact on reader’s decisions about who was to blame and policies ought to be pursued to reduce crashes and injuries.  A more complete and driver focused description of crashes led to more support, for example, for infrastructure solutions.

The author’s helpful have some succinct advise for reporters and editors; and its a grammar for talking about roadway deaths that all of us should embrace.  To translate one big of unfortunate academese: “non-agentive” ignoring humans and their choices, for example, don’t say “the pedestrian was struck by the car,” say “the driver ran over the pedestrian.”

  • Avoid non-agentive and object-based language.
  • Shift the focus away from the pedestrian and towards the driver (or if necessary, the vehicle).
  • Be conscious of the counterfactuals that you include. Specifically, if you mention that the pedestrian was outside a crosswalk, check Google Street View to quickly determine whether there are any crosswalks available and note that in many jurisdictions it is legal to cross outside marked crosswalks.
  • Include data on the number of crashes, injuries or deaths, preferably locally. Time permitting, consider contacting a local transportation, urban planning, or public health expert to provide further context.

Tara Goddard, Kelcie Ralph, Calvin G. Thigpen, Evan Iacobucci, “Does news coverage of traffic crashes affect perceived blame and preferred solutions? Evidence from an experiment,” Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives, 2019.

In the News

Willamette Week wrote about our commentary on the untrue claim that not proceeding with the $3 billion Columbia River Crossing will require Oregon and Washington to repay $140 million to the federal government, in an article entitled:  “One less reason to restart the Columbia River Crossing.”

The Oregonian featured our critique of this same claim about a federal repayment liability in its story discussing Governor Kate Brown and Governor Jay Inslee’s plan to revive the Columbia River Crossing project.