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The Week Observed, March 11, 2022

By Joe Cortright

What City Observatory did this week

Freeway widening for whomst:  Woke-washing the survey data.  Highway builders are eager to cloak their road expansion projects in the rhetoric of equity and have become adept at manipulating images and statistics.  In their efforts to sell the $5 billion I-5 freeway widening project in Portland, ODOT and WSDOT have rolled out the usual array of stock photos (this one cribbed from women’s health campaigns, to demonstrate their “commitment” to equity.

The DOT Equity Commitment: Smiling stock photograph actors. (IBR)

More ominously, the two agencies are also using an unscientific and biased web-based survey to falsely claim that the primary beneficiaries of its highway-widening project are low income and people of color.  We dig into their survey data and find it grossly undercounts low income populations, people of color, and young adults, and is biased heavily toward whiter, wealthier groups and those who commute regularly over the bridge.  The data are so skewed and unrepresentative that they can’t be used to make valid statistical statements about who travels where in the region, or how the public feels about the proposed project.  Census data make it clear that the primary beneficiaries of this freeway widening project are peak hour, drive alone commuters who make an average of $106,000 and 86 percent of whom are non-Hispanic whites.  In addition, the survey failed to disclose the project would require tolls of at least $2.60, and didn’t ask any respondents how they felt about tolling.

Must read

A parking inventory for the Bay Area.  Don Shoup’s magisterial work, The High Cost of Free Parking, itemizes the many ways that we have to pay for parking through higher rents, longer distances to all our destinations, and traffic congestion.  Part of the opaqueness of parking economics stems from a lack of data.  We have detailed counts of the population, of businesses, of road traffic, and of housing units, but almost no one comprehensively counts parking spaces.  A new study from the San Francisco Bay Area urban research group SPUR steps into that void.  It shows the Bay Area has roughly 15 million parking spaces, most of them located on public rights of way and “free” to use.  Parking is abundantly supplied:

There are 1.9 spaces per person, 2.7 spaces per employed individual, and 2.4 spaces per auto and light-duty truck. . . . Parking area constitutes 7.9% of the total incorporated area.

That’s in stark contrast to housing.  The Bay Area famously has extremely expensive housing—in part because land use policies have allowed for only 3.6 million housing units for people–less that a quarter of the number of parking spaces available for cars.  And while most parking spaces are free and pay little or nothing in taxes, houses are expensive and heavily taxed and regulated.  The parking inventory clearly signals a regime in which vehicles are vastly more privileged than people.

The “User Pays” Road Finance Myth.  There’s a widespread fiction that the road system is fully paid for by user fees.  A new report from The Frontier Group reminds us, once again, that’s just not true.  User fees, like fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees cover only about half of the direct costs of the road system, and pay almost nothing toward the substantial external and social costs of driving.

The road finance system is regularly bailed out from taxes on unrelated activities (like groceries in Virginia), and Congress has bailed out the Highway Trust Fund with over $156 billion from general funds, in addition to billions for for the IIJA.  Drivers not only don’t pay the costs of the roads they drive on, they impose huge costs on others from crashes ($474 billion), air pollution ($41 billion) and greenhouse gas emissions $70 billion).  By all means, let’s have a user pays transportation system, because we certainly don’t have one now.  Frontier Group has specific recommendations for building on existing revenue systems (the gas tax does tax carbon pollution) and adapting others, like congestion pricing.

Need for a fundamental shift in transportation policies.  California’s Strategic Growth Council has taken a deep dive into the state’s infrastructure policies, and is calling for a dramatic change in funding priorities to tackle climate change.  Key to this is shifting transportation investment away from freeway expansion.  They write:

“. . . a significant share of funds at the state, regional, and local levels continue to be spent on adding highway lanes and other projects that increase vehicle travel. This funding not only adds to the maintenance burden of an aging highway system but also means less available funding for other investments that might move more people (such as running more buses or prioritizing their movement) without expanding roadways or inducing additional vehicle travel and provide Californians with more options to meet daily travel needs. Additionally, in most situations, particularly in urban areas, adding highway lanes will not achieve the goals they were intended to solve (such as reducing congestion) as new highway capacity often induces additional vehicle travel due to latent demand that then undermines any congestion relief benefit over time. Critically, these projects also add burdens to already impacted communities along freeway corridors with additional traffic and harmful emissions, and by further dividing and often displacing homes and families in neighborhoods that were segmented by freeways decades prior.”

The legislatively mandated report sets the stage for better policies.  If California is really serious about its climate change objectives, now is the time to stop building more highway capacity.

New knowledge

Cars make cities less compact.  The chief economic advantage of cities is that they bring people closer together, enably social interaction and promoting productivity.  While at the margin, for an individual, a car makes things in a city easier to reach, that’s not true when more and more people use cars.  Over time, the advent of car ownership has caused population and economic activity to sprawl outward, undercutting the key advantage of proximity.

In this study, a global analysis of car ownership levels and population density shows that cities with higher levels of car ownership have systematically lower levels of density.

That’s long been understood, but there’s by a technical criticism that it may be the low density of places that “causes” more car ownership, rather than the other way around.  This paper tackles that issue by using an instrumental variables methodology that proxies the establishment of car manufacturing facilities for car ownership, and finds that causality runs from car ownership to lower density (the advent of more car manufacturing explains the decline in density.)  While that analysis is convincing, it is very likely the case that, over time, as car ownership increases and density declines, that there is also a feedback loop from lower density to more car ownership:  as land uses become more dispersed due to car ownership, more households are forced to acquire cars to maintain access in the face of falling density, and this in turn triggers further declines in density.  Now, decades after widespread adoption of cars in advanced economies, it may be impossible (and pointless) to try and fully separate cause and effect.  The key finding of this study, however, is that in lower income nations, more widespread car ownership is likely to lead to further declines in population density in cities, which in turn will increase their carbon footprint, and make it all the more difficult to fight climate change.

Francis Ostermeijer, Hans Koster, Jos van Ommeren, Victor Nielsen, Cars make cities less compact, VOX EU, 8 March 2022, and

Ostermeijer, F, H R A Koster, J van Ommeren and V M Nielsen (2022), “Automobiles and urban density”, Journal of Economic Geography, forthcoming.

In the news

Clark County Today re-published our commentary “$18 for 18 wheelers” on proposed truck tolls for the proposed Interstate 5 freeway widening project in Portland.
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