What City Observatory did this week

Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Gridlock Tuesday?  The day after a nation celebrates its socially distanced “Zoom Thanksgiving” we’ll look to see how the pandemic affects the traditional “Black Friday” shopping spree. It seems likely that more retail sales than ever will gravitate to on-line shopping. That’s got many self-styled smart city futurists predicting gridlock from more and more delivery vehicles.

But paradoxically, buying stuff on-line and having it delivered actually reduces vehicle miles traveled, because each mile traveled by a delivery truck wipes out 30 (or more) miles driven by shoppers in their cars.  And because delivery density increases the more packages Amazon or Fedex or UPS deliver—their trucks are traveling shorter and shorter distances between deliveries, making them greener and more energy efficient.

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1. Brookings ideas on climate policy for the Biden Administration.  As the presidential transition proceeds, the policy experts at the Brookings Institution are offering their thoughts on what the federal government might due to reinvigorate the nation’s climate efforts.  We were struck by suggestions from two Brookings scholars, Jenny Schuetz and Adie Tomer.  Schuetz made a strong case for reforming land use and making it easier to build more housing in cities, where living is greener. For too long, federal policy has encouraged sprawling development that’s only made greenhouse gases increase:

Each year, we see more evidence of the devastating financial and human costs of building homes in the “wrong” places—and yet we continue to do it.

Adie Tomer echoes this diagnosis:

Neighborhoods designed at a human-scale—ones with greater proximity between homes and destinations—lead to far shorter trips. The problem is most of metropolitan America stopped building these neighborhoods long ago.

And, as Tomer notes, subsidizing electric vehicles would just repeat the mistakes of past federal policies, incentivizing more sprawl and long-distance trips. Instead, we need to look for ways to build more human scale neighborhoods.  That, and not a technical fix, is a critical choice for the climate.

2. A transportation parable:  Gas lines.  Michael Manville of UCLA takes an historical event, America’s gas lines from the “Energy Crisis” of the early and late 1970s,” and deploys it as a parable of why we have traffic congestion, and what we can do to solve it.  For a time in the seventies, America’s energy policy was stuck by the imagined political impossibility of allowing gas prices to rise in the face of global oil shortages. Rather than allow prices to rise, we resorted to official and unofficial rationing, everything from alternate day purchases, to gallon limits, to simply having long lines at the pump.

Briefly, the reason we have traffic congestion today is the same reason that, back in the 1970s, we had gasoline lines. We fixed the price of gas too low, so people had to line up to get it.  Since 1979, we haven’t had price controls on gas, and when there have been price increases, we haven’t had shortages, because demand quickly adjusted. When we price something correctly, people make different choices and figure out ways to use less (or in the case of traffic congestion, travel at different times). As Manville argues, we should be applying the same lesson to our streets:  If we price peak hour travel, we can eliminate congestion.
3.  Transit for all.  Yonah Freemark, famously of Transport Politic, and now with the Urban Institute starts the conversation about what the Biden Administration might do to improve the nation’s transit systems with a back-of-the-envelope set of estimates of what it might cost to increase transit service in all of the nation’s cities to the levels deployed in relatively high performing places.  Freemark uses the National Transit Database to estimate the number of hours of transit service provided per capita in every city, and then works out what it would cost to get every city up to say, Chicago levels of transit provision.  The short answer is, not that much.  Freemark estimates that it would cost $16.7 billion to provide every city of 100,000 or more with that higher level of transit service.  (Hours of service is a bit of gloss on the actual quality of service provided, principally because densely populated places get much better service per hour of transit operation than do sprawling ones, but even with that qualification, this is a great way to begin thinking about what we might do to improve transit everywhere.