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The Week Observed, February 18, 2022

By Joe Cortright

What City Observatory did this week

Oregon’s highway agency rigs its projections to maximize revenue and downplay its culpability for climate challenge.  ODOT has two different standards for forecasting:  When it forecasts revenue, it says it will ignore adopted policies—especially ones that will reduce its revenue.  When it forecasts greenhouse gas emissions, assumes policies that don’t exist—especially ones that will magically make greenhouse gas emissions decline. Revenue forecasts are “purely based on historical data” and don’t include adopted policies.  Greenhouse gas emission forecasts are based on “goals” and “wishes” and are explicitly not an extrapolation of past trends. The inflated revenue forecasts are used to justify (and help fund) highway widening; the greenhouse gas emission forecasts are used to absolve the agency from any responsibility to reduce driving related greenhouse gas emissions.

Must read

How freeway widening undercuts our climate policies.  Will the trillion dollar bipartisan infrastructure law be the foundation of stronger efforts to fight climate change, or will it be used to subsidize highway expansions that will increase greenhouse gases?  That’s the challenge, explains Brad Plumer, writing in The New York Times.  Transportation has emerged as the single largest source of US greenhouse gas emissions. Parts of the infrastructure bill, such as those promoting electric vehicles and charging stations, have the potential to reduce greenhouse gases.  But highway expansions encourage more driving and increase pollution:

The core problem, environmentalists say, is a phenomenon known as “induced traffic demand.” When states build new roads or add lanes to congested highways, instead of reducing traffic, more cars show up to fill the available space. Induced demand explains why, when Texas widened the Katy Freeway in Houston to more than 20 lanes in 2011, at a cost of $2.8 billion, congestion returned to previous levels within a few years.

Plumer notes that some states, such as Colorado, have adopted policies to consider the greenhouse gas effects of highway expansions.  But for most states, highway departments are still in denial that induced demand exists, or simply don’t care.

FHWA Policy Guidance for Infrastructure Funds.  Bloomberg’s Lillianna Byington, reports on the Biden Administration’s efforts to lay out policy guidance for the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) which would prioritize climate and “fix-it-first” efforts.   The Federal Highway Administration is pushing states to fix existing roads with the bill’s expanded funding. She reports:

In “most cases” highway money through the infrastructure law should be used to repair and maintain existing infrastructure before spending on “expansions for additional general purpose capacity,” Federal Highway Administration Deputy Administrator Stephanie Pollack said in the guidance memo dated Dec. 16.

The efforts to emphasize climate and repair have gotten pushback from some highway agencies and Republican Governors who want unfettered discretion to spend money on expansion projects.  While its likely that states will still have considerable sway on the spending of formula allocation funds, many of the new resources available under IIJA are competitive grants that will be decided by FHWA, likely using these policies.

Promoting transit:  A great way to improve road safety.  Writing at Slate, David Zipper highlights a routinely overlooked strategy for making our transportation system safer:  promoting more travel by transit.  Most road safety efforts don’t ever question our mode of travel.  Zipper points out that travel by bus and train is dramatically less risky for passengers than travel by car.  In addition, buses and trains are almost certainly safer for vulnerable road users, like those persons traveling by bike or on foot, because professional drivers are, on average, considerably safer than car drivers.  A key part of our safety strategy ought to be making transit more convenient, more frequent and cheaper as a way of promoting safety.

New Knowledge

Fixer Upper:  A primer on improving US housing policy.  Brookings Institution economist Jennie Schuetz is one of the most incisive housing policy scholars in the nation, and she has a new must-read book:  Fixer Upper:  How to repair America’s broken housing systems.

Housing is often a complex and wonky subject, especially when addressed by economists, but Schuetz makes her case in a clear and non-technical way.  In a nutshell:  We have too little housing in the places that are in highest demand, largely because we’ve devolved much of the authority for approving housing to local or neighborhood groups whose interests conflict with broader social and environmental objectives.  We also have a national system of subsidies that encourages low density development at the urban fringe (adding to environmental damage and burdening us with greater transportation challenges).  The system of subsidies is overwhelmingly skewed to helping wealthy people buy ever larger homes, while we provide rental housing assistance to less than fourth of the low income households who would be eligible. Around this kernel are a series of inter-related political, economic and social issues, all of which influence and are influenced by housing policy.

Much could be done to make US housing policy better.  Schuetz neatly condenses her prescription into a lucid series of chapter headings that underscore what needs to be done to improve US housing policy.  For example:

  • Build More Homes Where People Want to Live
  • Stop Building Homes in the Wrong Places
  • Give Poor People Money
  • Homeownership Should Be Only One Component of Household Wealth
  • High-Quality Community Infrastructure Is Expensive, But It Benefits Everyone

Each chapter explains the rationale behind this advice, and lays out the academic evidence in favor of the policy.  The book concludes with two chapters laying out the political challenges of improving housing policy, including overcoming the myopia imposed by the highly local nature of land use decision making, and figuring out how to construction new political coalitions that can enact innovative policies to address housing.

There’s much here, both for readers who are well-versed in housing policy and politics and those who aren’t.  If you’re just starting out to try to make sense of the complexity of housing policy, “Fixer Upper” serves as a comprehensive and practical orientation.  And if you consider yourself a housing expert, you’ll find a thoughtful framework for integrating all of the varied aspects of housing policy.

Jennie Schuetz, Fixer Upper:  How to repair America’s broken housing systems, Brookings Institution Press, February 22, 2022

In the news

In its article on infrastructure and climate change, The New York Times pointed its readers to City Observatory’s analysis of the failure of the widening of Houston’s Katy Freeway to alleviate traffic congestion:
Writing at Planetizen, in an essay entitled, “Urban Villages for the Proletariat, Todd Litman describes how dense urban growth promotes equity, and cites City Observatory’s commentary on how the role of cities in promoting intergenerational economic mobility.
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