What City Observatory did this week

A two cent solution to climate change?  Around the world, plastic bags are an environmental scourge, both in the form a litter (a nuisance) and as a threat to wildlife. In response, many cities have implemented plastic bag fees, asking consumers to pay a nickel or more per bag. The result of such policies is dramatic:  In Britain, plastic bag consumption has fallen almost 90 percent. Our thought is that we apply the same idea to carbon pollution, asking people to pay about 2 cents per found of carbon that they emit.  That two cent a pound fee works out to about $40 a ton, which is in the range for what many economists are recommending as a way to fundamentally shift incentives in a way that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  If we’re willing to charge people a nickel for a plastic bag, why don’t we consider charging 2 cents a pound for carbon?


Must read

1. Why all the panic over gentrification? The premise of Matthew L. Schuerman’s new book “Newcomers” is that “gentrification is all around us.”  In his review at Washington Monthly, Wil Stancil asks whether gentrification is really as pervasive as Schuerman imagines:

As a demographic researcher, I decided to check. Using U.S. Census data, I looked at the share of people in New York, San Francisco, and Chicago living in places that met Schuerman’s definition of having gentrified between 2000 and 2016. In New York, it’s 3.1 percent of residents. In San Francisco, the number is 4.4 percent. In Chicago, it’s 4.8 percent.  . . . Using Newcomers’ own definition, the story of urban America is not a tidal wave of gentrification but creeping racial and economic transition. 

As City Observatory’s research, and that of others has regularly shown, concentrated poverty and neighborhood decline are far more widespread and far more devastating for the urban poor than the relatively few instances of gentrification.  But for author’s like Schuerman, who don’t dig deeply into the data, its unsurprising that their personal perceptions about gentrification hinge greatly on lived personal experience. It turns out that gentrification is all around “us,” if “us” is defined as well-educated, upwardly mobile, urban-leaning intellectuals.  As Stancil writes:

Almost by definition, it is members of the urban professional class who are the most likely to be exposed to affluent neighborhoods in the late stages of gentrifying. Among movers and shakers in media and politics, gentrification may truly seem to be everywhere they go. Often, it’s because they’re bringing it with them. 

Gentrification seems to be one of those subjects where personal anecdotes regularly trump careful data. We’d be much more likely to effectively address neighborhood change if the policy dialog were better grounded in facts.

2. How to talk about reforming housing policy.  Sightline’s Michael Andersen opens the hood on the right way to talk about changing housing policy. Earlier this year, Oregon passed pioneering legislation that legalizes duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes in single-family residential zones in the state. One key to this breaktrhough legislation was a conscious decision to talk about housing in different way than we have in the past.  The Sightline Institute prepared a guide to the rhetoric of housing reform that underscores the key messages. For starters, rather than talk about “density” and “housing units” Sightline urges advocates to adopt more meaningful and concrete terms that allude to specific kinds of homes, i.e. “re-legalizing duplexes.”  The umbrella term “Missing Middle Housing” helps communicate what they’re trying to achieve that puts it in a historical context and defuses some of the fears that added density can raise.  Sightline has published its full communication guide, and its a helpful resource for all housing advocates.

3. Uber’s car killed a pedestrian because it was programmed to ignore people outside crosswalks.  More than a year ago, Elaine Herzberg was struck and killed by an Uber autonomous vehicle in Arizona. The National Transportation Safety Board has been investigating the crash, and newly released documents show that Ubers sensors detected Herzberg several seconds before the crash, plenty of time to brake the car before striking her.  But the car’s software was programmed not to treat people outside of crosswalks as objects.  The cars software struggled to correctly categorize Herzberg, and by the time it alerted its on-board human supervisor of its confusion, it was too late to avert the crash. As Wired relates:

. . . despite the fact that the car detected Herzberg with more than enough time to stop, it was traveling at 43.5 mph when it struck her and threw her 75 feet. When the car first detected her presence, 5.6 seconds before impact, it classified her as a vehicle. Then it changed its mind to “other,” then to vehicle again, back to “other,” then to bicycle, then to “other” again, and finally back to bicycle.

It never guessed Herzberg was on foot for a simple, galling reason: Uber didn’t tell its car to look for pedestrians outside of crosswalks. “The system design did not include a consideration for jaywalking pedestrians,” the NTSB’s Vehicle Automation Report reads.

It appears that the software for autonomous vehicles is replicating the implicit bias of current road use conventions: and for pedestrians, that can have fatal consequences.

In the News

Willamette Week has a story reporting on the pushback climate advocates are offering to Portland’s proposed $3 billion, highway heavy transportation bond measure, slated to go before voters next year.  The article quotes City Observatory’s Joe Cortright on the climate implications of highway “improvements.”