What City Observatory did this week

There’s nothing green about free parking, no matter how many solar panels you put on the garage.  The US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory brags about its sustainable parking garage, festooned with solar panels.  But the garage, designed to hold about 1,800 cars is essentially fossil fuel infrastructure, a problem exacerbated by the lab’s suburban location, and policy of not charging anyone for parking. We first wrote about the parking garage in 2017, and now revisit it to see how it has performed.

Unsurprisingly, an event smaller share of the lab’s commuters travel to the lab in anything other than single-occupancy vehicles than before the garage was built.

Must read

The real villains in gentrification. There’s a lot of finger-pointing and virtue-signalling in the arguments over gentrification, but as The Atlantic’s Jersualem Demsaas explains, most people are looking in the wrong direction when assigning blame for gentrification (and rising home prices).  The real cause of gentrification is pervasive restrictions on increasing density in higher income neighborhoods, chiefly through restrictive single-family zoning.  These limits effectively displace demand to other places (chiefly lower income neighborhoods), in addition to excluding lower income households from higher resource areas.  And overall, the constriction of supply tends to drive up home prices, which works to the disadvantage of low income households.

Local governments have, in particular, chosen to respect the class interests of wealthy homeowners by giving them the power to reject the construction of new and more affordable types of housing, in effect allowing them to economically segregate their neighborhoods. . . In genuflecting to the class interests of wealthy homeowners, local officials have, then, set the stage for gentrification. Yes, in a narrow sense, gentrification happens when young, college-educated, and predominantly white people move to racially and economically diverse neighborhoods. But notice how insidious this framing is and who it leaves out: the homeowners and city officials who made equitable growth impossible. This framing foments conflict among young newcomers and lower-income communities of color and turns a structural problem into an individual one.

This is a deeply insightful and precise analysis of the root causes of gentrification and the political misdirection of blame away from exclusionary zoning that serves the financial interests of wealthier and whiter homeowners:  It is a must, must read for anyone who cares about cities, housing affordability or equity.

Washington State simply ignores climate issues as it plans more freeways.  The Urbanist’s Ryan Packer takes a close look at Washington State’s climate policies, as implemented by its transportation department.  Governor Jay Inslee portrayed himself as a “green” candidate in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, but the policy of his administration makes it clear that the state is turning a blind eye to the role of highway expansions in increasing greenhouse gases.  The state transportation agency, WSDOT looked at three scenarios for transportation spending, and concluded that whether it spent a lot or a little on more highways had essentially no impact on climate emissions.  Packer writes:

But when it comes to analyzing the environmental impact of these scenarios, things come off the rails. WSDOT told the commission that its initial analysis concluded the three scenarios had essentially the same impact on the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, according to WSDOT, spending $10 billion on expanded highways (in the “maintain and innovate” scenario) would have exactly the same impact as spending more than double that (in the “maintain and expand” one).

All this flies in the face of the demonstrated science of induced demand (more roadways stimulate more driving and increase emissions), something that WSDOT claims it understands in other technical work.  What this shows is that when it comes to actually spending money, highway departments are still in deep denial about the scientific realities of both climate change and induced travel.

The problem with district representation in city government.  Many cities elect their governing bodies by district, and by rule or tradition, systems of “aldermanic privilege” or “courtesy” mean that nothing happens in a district (development approvals, zone changes and so on) without the explicit approval of the person elected from that area.  It’s a system that inherently tends to favor “NIMBY” politics (Not-in-my-backyard), as a person elected by a district will be more sensitive to local concerns.  And it also creates deal-making opportunities for city councilors.  Trading development approvals for political or financial favors often becomes the norm.  In St. Louis, three Aldermen were indicted by Federal prosecutors for accepting bribes in connection with land sales, tax abatements and rezonings.  According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the indictments have:

. . . shined a light on a practice often referred to as “aldermanic courtesy” and the direct involvement of city alderman in many of the bureaucratic functions of city government.  Federal prosecutors zeroed in on lucrative tax abatements and the sale of property owned by the Land Reutilization Authority, the city’s land bank. But aldermanic influence can also affect which streets get repaired, where speed bumps are installed and whether the planning department even takes up a rezoning request.

This problem is endemic to ward-based election systems:  elected officials have a narrow base of support, and are naturally more interested in serving their districts than the city at large.  This coupled with a tendency toward “log-rolling”—deferring to the local interests of other members, as they defer to your local interests—undermines the political support for consistent, rules-based administration.

New Knowledge

The persistent racial gap in Covid death rates.  A recent New York Times story claimed that Covid-19 death rates, which have previously been higher for non-white, non-Asian populations, have either converged with white death rates, or actually decreased below them.

The trouble is, that isn’t true.  The New York Times statistic failed to adjust for the different age composition of each racial-ethnic group.  The aggregate death rate of non-white Americans has declined more than for whites, but this is chiefly an artifact of the much younger average age of this group.  Tyler Black posted on Twitter age-specific death rates by race and ethnicity.  They show a persistent gap in death rates.

Black computes the “odds-ratio”–the likelihood that a non-White/Asian person will die of covid relative to the likelihood that a White/Asian person will die of Covid.  The horizontal axis shows the odds-ratio for each age group.  The different colored lines correspond to the three years of the pandemic (2020, 2021 and 2022).  Overall, the disparity is lower in 2022 than it was in 2020, but its still the case that age-specific death rates are higher for non-white/Asian persons in each age group.

Many factors influence Covid-19 infection rates and mortality; age is clearly a principal risk factor, and failing to control for it in one’s analysis is a serious flaw.  Too often with Covid-19 statistics there’s been an undue eagerness to jump to unwarranted conclusions based on fragmentary or poorly analyzed data (at City Observatory, we spent a considerable amount of time debunking early claims that density was a key risk factor for Covid spread).

In the News

Willamette Week quoted City Observatory Director Joe Cortright on the proposed $5 billion Interstate Bridge freeway widening project:  ““The project’s traffic forecasts are inaccurate, the cost estimates are based on decade-old engineering work, and the selected high bridge option is the riskiest, most expensive and least affordable approach to solving this problem.”