What City Observatory did the past couple of weeks

1. Using seismic scare stories to sell freeways. The Pacific Northwest is living on the edge; sometime (possibly tomorrow, possible several hundred years from now) we’ll experience a Cascadia subduction earthquake that will do significant damage to the region’s infrastructure.  Fear of that event is real, but is also a potent talking point for selling freeway expansion. In a guest commentary, Robert Liberty looks at claims made by officials of the Oregon Department of Transportation, that the I-5 bridges over the Columbia River are vulnerable to the quake. As Liberty points out, the department’s own assessments of seismic risk show that these bridges are no more at risk than others.

2. Why Cyber Monday won’t cause Gridlock Tuesday. Black Friday, the biggest brick-and-mortar shopping day is here, soon to be followed by Cyber-Monday’s on-line seasonal peak. The growth of e-commerce has fueled rampant speculation that city streets will be clogged by Fedex and UPS trucks delivering an ever larger stream of packages. That concern is misplaced: every package delivery means fewer miles traveled for shopping; MIT transportation expert William Wheaton estimates that e-commerce produces 30 times less vehicle miles of travel per dollar spent than brick and mortar shopping. National travel data bear this out: shopping travel has declined in the past decade, especially among young adults who do the most on-line shopping. There’s another factor at work here as well:  the more packages they deliver, the more efficient UPS and Fedex become, more packages mean a higher “delivery density”–i.e. fewer miles traveled per package, which increases their advantage over brick and mortar shopping as volumes increase. So when you see that Fedex truck dropping off a package, keep in mind it means 30 fewer cars on the road to the mall.

Must read

1. New York contemplates the end of free parking. The New York Times reports that there are serious discussions about eliminating free parking in much of the city. There are an estimated 3 million on-street parking spaces in the city of New York, about one for every three New Yorkers, and more than 95 percent of them are free. Because they’re unpriced, they’re chronically in short supply. It’s also a huge subsidy from the majority of New Yorkers who don’t own cars, to those residents (and non-residents who do). Giving away valuable public street space for private car storage cripples the city’s ability to move people more efficiently and safely by transit, bikes and walk,ing, An interesting historical note: New York City only legalized on-street, overnight parking in the 1940s; at the time the city considered a $60 monthly fee (which works out to about $640 in today’s money); instead, it let car owners use the streets for free subject to the city’s arcane “alternate side of the street parking rules.”  A city of 10 million people with 3 million “free” parking spaces will always have too many cars, too much traffic, and too little money to fix its transportation problems.

2. Airports and Climate Change:  As we all know, transportation is now the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the US. While the bulk of emissions come from our cars and trucks, a large and growing share of emissions come from increased flying. While there’s growing consciousness about the personal culpability for emissions, aka “flight shaming,” Curbed’s Alissa Walker makes a strong case that our policies for subsidizing air travel and especially airport construction, contribute to air travel emissions.  The federal government collects billions in ticket taxes which are funneled back into airport subsidies. Local governments also finance airport construction, and especially finance land-side infrastructure (parking lots and car rental facilities) that combine one source of greenhouse gas emissions (planes) with another (cars).  Metro New York will spend $28 billion upgrading and expanding its airports; what if, instead, it was spending that much on inter-city rail transportation, Walker asks? We all have tough choices to make if we’re going to reduce our climate impact, that isn’t made any easier by these systemic biases in favor of high carbon modes of travel.

3. End Apartment Bans to Save the Planet.  Sightline Institute calls our attention to a new report from the United Nations which definitely raises the stakes for housing policy. You may think of the YIMBY “Yes in my back yard” movement as a highly local effort primarily concerned about housing affordability. But as the UN report makes clear, legalizing apartments in urban centers is an essential strategy for fighting climate change. In the US and elsewhere, the most common land use policies have made it difficult or impossible to build additional density in the most walkable, transit served locations, with the result that new development is pushed to the urban fringe, creating car-dependent housing patterns that will be locked in place for decades. As the report says:

“In some locations, spatial planning prevents the construction of multifamily residences and locks in suburban forms at high social and environmental costs.”

Multifamily buildings have a lower carbon footprint both because they tend to be smaller (per person) than single family homes, and because common wall construction reduces energy consumption. But more importantly, multifamily buildings in dense urban settings reduce vehicle miles of travel and carbon emissions from transportation. As this report suggests, YIMBY policies to allow more housing are important both for improving housing affordability locally, and tackling climate change globally.

Put this in your backyard to lower housing costs and save the planet.

New Knowledge

How Title I discourages integration. One of the most important federal education programs is Title I, which provides supplemental funding for elementary and secondary schools with a high proportion of low income students. Schools with lots of kids from low income families often face a double challenge, because of low property values, they have limited local financial resources, and the concentration of kids with economic and educational challenges makes it more costly to provide an equivalent education. Title I helps offset this difference by providing additional funding to schools in poor cities and neighborhoods.

But there’s a rub: As a new report from the National Coalition for School Diversity points out, because the Title I funding is tied to the fraction of kids in a school or school district from families below the poverty line, when a school or district does a better job of integrating, it can face the loss of funds. Federal and local administrative policies for Title I typically set some thresholds for qualifying for Title I funding, and when a school falls below that line, it can lose funding. This creates a penalty for schools that integrate. One school in Brooklyn fell just below a local 60 percent poverty threshold and lost $120,000 in annual funding.

It’s a gnarly problem:  Title I funds are limited, and the intent of the law is to target money to schools that have the highest concentrations of need. But the data on the value of economic integration are extremely powerful: the less we concentrate kids from low income families in specific schools or districts, the better their educational outcomes. One suggested solution is to have a “hold harmless” provision that protects schools (at least for a period of time) from a reduction in Title I funding if they fall just below an eligibility threshold.

National Coalition for School Diversity, Title I Funding and School Integration: The Current Funding Formula’s Disincentives to Deconcentrate Poverty and Potential Ways Forward, Diversity Issue Brief No. 9, November 2019

In the News

In a blog post entitled “The $140 million lie” The Vancouver Columbian praised our analysis of federal funding requirements for the proposed Columbia River Crossing as “meticulous” (it turns out that if Oregon and Washington choose a “No-Build” alternative they aren’t required to repay federal planning funds (contrary to a claim made by state DOT officials.

Correction:  Our November 19 Week Observed mistakenly placed Bloomington, Indiana in a different state; we regret the error.