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The Week Observed, February 11, 2022

By Joe Cortright

What City Observatory did this week

The “replacement” bridge con.  It’s telling that perhaps the largest single consulting expense for Oregon and Washington transportation departments’ efforts to revive the failed multi-billion Columbia River Crossing project is $5 million for “communications” consultants.  The project has emphasized a misleading rebranding to call it mere “bridge replacement” project, when it fact less than 30 percent of the cost of the nearly $5 billion project is actually for replacing the existing highway bridge, according to independent accountants. And since the project is proposing to effectively double the existing capacity of the I-5 bridge over the Columbia River by building two side-by-side bridges, half of the expense of the bridge part of the project is really an expansion, not a replacement.

Most of the cost of the so-called “Interstate Bridge Replacement” project is for widening the freeway and rebuilding interchanges for miles north and south of the bridge crossing.   The actual “replacement” cost of the current bridge is somewhere between $500 million and one billion. Calling $5 billion, 5-mile long freeway a “replacement bridge” is like saying if you buy a new $55,000 truck it’s a “tire replacement.”

Must read

How traffic engineers ruin your town.  Recovering engineer Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns explains how the apparently innocuous and technocratic approach of traffic engineers systematically undermines the livability of urban spaces.  He relates how in his hometown, traffic engineers have dictated that one local mainstreet must carry 30,000 cars a day, without forcing them to ever slow down.  In order, engineers prioritize speed, volume, safety and cost.  Local quality of life doesn’t figure in, with the net result being, as Marohn puts it:

The city must be degraded, the quality of life of its residents diminished, and local business opportunities stifled, in order to improve the convenience of commuters who have chosen to live outside of the city. The design of this street must prioritize their convenience over all else.

The priority afforded to car movement undercuts the livability of the city, drives away more residents and businesses to distant (and less trafficked) suburbs, and increases car-dependency.  What we need to do is set clear priorities that favor the interests of those who live in a city over those who are simply passing through:

What if we all agreed that the quality of the city’s neighborhoods, the success of its local businesses, and the safety of its residents, were the paramount concern?  . . . the new design of Washington Street would narrow lanes, widen sidewalks, bring in vegetation and human-scaled lighting, prioritize people walking, give deference to cross-traffic instead of throughput . .  while it might make commutes a little longer for those who have chosen to live outside the city, that delay would be offset in time by an increasing number of people who choose to live in the city’s neighborhoods, the improved business community that could expand offerings in response to a responsive local market, a shift in the number of trips that could now be made by biking and walking, and the local wealth saved from an overall reduction in vehicle miles traveled.

Why car dependent transportation is inherently discriminatory.    In an article originally published at, and republished by Streetsblog, Basav Sen argues that the US transportation system fuels inequality and that prioritizing private vehicle use leaves the poor and people of color behind. The problem is fundamentally two-fold:  First, low income households and people of color are dramatically less likely to own or have access to a car; 40 percent of those in the lowest income quintile don’t own cars.  Second, even for those who do own cars, the cost of their operation is effectively a regressive tax, requiring them to spend a much larger fraction of their income on transportation than higher income households.

A transportation system where people have to rely on their own vehicles doesn’t merely exclude those who don’t own vehicles – it imposes a severe financial burden on poorer households that do own vehicles.

The USPS vehicle procurement process and subverting NEPA. By now, everyone’s read about the Postal Service’s plan to buy 160,000 inefficient, heavy, expensive, fossil-fueled mail trucks.  Vice’s Aaron Gordon has done some phenomenal reporting, showing for example that USPS specified the vehicles had to be at least one pound over the limit for “light vehicles” which would have required them to be (somewhat) cleaner).

The USPS approach to vehicle procurement also reveals a profound flaw in the environmental review process:  as a federal agency, the Postal Service has to do an environmental impact statement on its procurement, including, estimating how much pollution their vehicles will create, and considering alternatives (you know, like electric vehicles).  But the EIS is written by the agency, which in this case had already made its decision, and which crafted a  decidedly narrow EIS to back up their decision.  As Gordon explains, USPS ruled out considering EVs because some delivery routes (fewer than 10 percent) are longer that 70 miles, what it considers to be the range of electric vehicles, and failed to consider any alternatives which would have a mix of vehicles tailored to the actual lengths of delivery routes. Other agencies with more technical knowledge on emissions, like the Environmental Protection Agency had virtually no input on the decision, or the EIS.  As long as the polluter gets to write their own EIS, they’ll get just the results they’re paying for.  If the EIS isn’t conducted by a truly independent agency (as opposed to a profit-seeking contractor) it at least ought to be undertaken using scientific guidelines set by someone with subject matter expertise, and not a vested interest in the outcome.

New Knowledge

Who gains from rent control?  A new study from two University of Potsdam economists looks at the impacts of rent control on high income and low income households. Recent experimentation with rent control in Germany (where municipal limits were enaçted, and then struck down by courts), coupled with detailed micro-data on the rental marketplace, provides a basis for examining the impact of rent control on different households.

The paper offers two key findings:  first, that the benefits of rent control flow disproportionately to higher income households, and that second that rent control tends to increase the level of income segregation in the city.

While rent control policies are usually promoted as a way to help low income households, rent controls typically apply to all of the rental housing in a subject jurisdiction, regardless of the rent level of the apartment or the income level of the household. Many of the benefits of rent control are captured by higher income households.  In effect, rent control can dissuade higher income households from moving out of their rent-controlled apartments to new market rate housing.  This, in turn, means fewer apartments are vacated and become available to other households.

As we’ve noted, the moving chains generated by new housing development are a key way in which existing housing filters to moderate and lower income households.  If high income households remain in their rent controlled apartments, this source of new supply doesn’t materialize.

The second key finding looks at the whether income segregation increases or decreases under rent control.  One argument frequently made for rent control is that it enables low or moderate income households to remain in neighborhoods that would otherwise gentrify, increasing income integration.  But this paper suggests that the opposite happens, as high income households remain or increase in central neighborhoods.

We find that rent control leads to an increase in segregation: compared to the baseline, the city-wide dissimilarity index rises from 0.2323 to 0.2606. When looking at the ZIP code specific change in concentration, we find that the increase in concentration is particularly driven by an increase in the concentration of high income households in the regulated central city ZIP codes . . .  This finding stands in contrast to popular arguments which view rent control as a measure to preserve a relatively even income mix in central cities.

Rainhold Borck and Niklas Gohl, “Gentrification and Affordable Housing Policies,” CESifo Working Paper No. 9454, November 29, 2021.

In the news

City Observatory’s Joe Cortright is quoted in Bike Portland‘s article, “Parsing the ‘electric cars won’t save us’ debate.”
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