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The Week Observed, February 4, 2022

By Joe Cortright

What City Observatory did this week

Climate and our Groundhog Day Doom Loop.  It’s Groundhog  Day—again—and we’re stuck in exactly the same place when it comes to climate policy.  Scientists are regularly offering up increasing dire warnings and every more irrefutable evidence of climate change. Extreme weather events: fires, floods, drought, hurricanes are becoming increasingly more common.

And our climate policy still mostly consists of telling ourselves that we’ll reduce our greenhouse gas emissions a couple of decades from now.  We’ve been tracking Oregon’s climate progress every Groundhog day for the past seven years, and just as Bill Murray experienced, nothing has changed.  If anything, its getting worse:  greenhouse gas emissions have increased, and we’re planning to spend additional billions widening freeways, which will surely make the problem worse. Maybe next year will be different.

Must read

New perspectives on road safety from US DOT.  Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced a major new emphasis on safety for the department: the National Roadway Safety Strategy.  There’s a lot to like here:  The plan acknowledges that the current toll of death and injuries is unacceptable, and its going to take more than exhortations to better behavior to solve the problem.  The strategy promises to look at road design, and considering safety to non-occupants in vehicle safety standards. USDOT is going to take another look at the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which has traditionally favored car movement over pedestrian and bike safety.  Harvard’s David Zipper, interviewed Secretary Buttigieg for Slate, and asked him a lot of the tough questions we would have liked answered, notably why more attention hasn’t been devoted to addressing the growing size (and lethality) of sport utility vehicles.  This interview will give you some clear insights about what to expect from the US DOT strategy.

Portland climate activists challenge their state DOT.  Vice’s Aaron Gordon has a report from the front-lines of the Youth vs. ODOT climate battle in Oregon.  He profiles high school student Adah Crandall, who’s been leading weekly protests in front of the highway department’s Portland offices for most of the past year, and who’s been skipping classes to testify to state and local decision-makers about the climate crisis, pleading with them to stop spending public funds expanding fossil fuel infrastructure.

More problems with inclusionary zoning in Portland (Maine).  A number of cities have adopted inclusionary zoning requirements that mandate that those who build new apartment buildings set aside a portion of the new units to be rented at below market rates for low and moderate income households.  While well-intentioned, the cost of complying with these requirements can often prompt a reduction in new construction, with the result that fewer units get built, and housing shortages worsen.  That’s exactly what appears to have happened in Portland, Maine, which instituted its requirement that most new apartment projects set-aside xx percent of their units as affordable housing. MaineBiz reports:

In 2020, prior to the new inclusionary zoning provision, 756 residential units were put on the planning books. In the roughly one year since passing the provision in November 2020, only 139 units had been put on the books — a decrease of 81.6%, according to a study by the Boulos Co.

We’ve previously chronicled how this appears to have reduced housing production in Portland, Oregon, a new report from Portland, Maine says that their requirements have had a similar effect, reducing new apartment starts by 25 percent from pre-IZ levels.

Moving more cars trumps safety, Texas edition.  For the past five years, San Antonio has been working to convert its Broadway Street from a wide, auto dominated arterial to a calmer, safer, more pedestrian oriented street.  Before the Interstate system was built, Broadway STreet was the route of a state highway and was controlled by the Texas Department of Transportation, but with most traffic moved to the interstate, the city has been working to redevelop the area, and had been cooperating with a plan to create a road diet for Broadway, to support public investments that will make the neighborhood more livable and walkable.

This plan for San Antonio’s Broadway Street nixed to favor car movement.

All that came to a crashing halt last week when TXDOT pulled the plug on its prior agreement to return Broadway to city jurisdiction.  Press reports suggest that Texas Governor Greg Abbott intervened, putting a higher priority on moving cars over making a place more suitable for people.

New Knowledge

How higher gas prices reduced sprawl.  The advent of cars about a century ago enabled much more decentralized development patterns.  A new study concludes that the price of gasoline has a direct and significant effect on how much we sprawl, and how much farm and forest land is lost to urbanization.

The heyday for sprawl was the second half of the twentieth century, but since then, even though US population and income have continued to increase, the rate of decentralization has fallen sharply.  Led by Daniel Bigelow, an economist at Montana State University, the authors used an inventory of US land to track development over time.  Nationally, land conversion (from resource uses to urban development) peaked at about 2 million acres per year in the mid 1990s, but has fallen to about a quarter that amount in recent years.

The authors look at the economic correlates of land conversion and find that the rate of land conversion  is correlated with long term changes in gasoline prices.  Declining gas prices produce more land conversion; increasing gas prices produce less land conversion.  The authors write:

Computed at the average county-level commuting time of 19 min, the average annual gasoline price decrease of $0.05 during the last two decades of the 20th century boosted annual land development by 6.06%, while the increase in gasoline prices in the second half of the study period ($0.03 annually) decreased land development by 2.84% per year.

Graphically, they summarize the connection between gas prices and urban land development across areas with differing commute times as follows:

The key finding of the study is that changing gas prices had their largest effects in locations with the longest commutes.  In the 1982-2000 period, when real gasoline prices were decreasing, the positive effect on land development was greatest in locations with longer commutes.  In the 2001-2015 period, when real gas prices were increasing, the declines in land development were greatest in the areas with longer commutes.  As the authors elaborate:

[In the first half of the study period] average change in gasoline price increased development by 6.11%–7.12% for counties with average commuting times longer than 15 min, while counties with shorter commuting times were unaffected by gasoline price changes (figure 4). Similarly, in the second half of the study period, when gasoline prices were increasing, the estimated decrease in land development was largest for counties characterized by longer commuting times. Counties with average commuting times over 12 min saw a decrease in development ranging from −2.63% to −3.31%, with shorter-commute counties not seeing any impact.

The impact of these changes over time is significant.  They estimate that the slowdown in land conversion caused by higher gas prices kept more than 4 million acres from being converted to urban use since 2000.  These findings have significant implications for understanding the effects of vehicle electrification:  electric cars are likely to have far lower operating costs that fossil-fueled vehicles.  This study suggests that declining fuel costs will trigger another wave of sprawl:  keep that in mind when someone claims EVs are “non-polluting.”

Daniel P. BigelowDavid J. Lewis and Christopher Mihiar, A major shift in U.S. land development avoids significant losses in forest and agricultural land.” Environmental Research Letters 2022.

In the news

Willamette Week tells the story of how Louisville squandered a billion dollars on a massive freeway project.  It’s plan to double the width of the I-65 bridges over the Ohio River exactly parallels plans for an I-5 Columbia River Bridge in Portland.  The problem, as we’ve pointed out at City Observatory, is that tolling reduced traffic enough that no expansion was needed.
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