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The Week Observed, May 13, 2022

By Joe Cortright

What City Observatory did this week

Just Say “No” to freeway widening zealots.  George Santayana meet David Bragdon:  Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat the failures of the past.  A year ago, we published this commentary by David Bragdon, now Director of the Transit Center, but a decade ago, President of Portland’s Metro regional government.  He warned that the region’s leaders were on the brink of repeating exactly the same mistakes of trusting two state highway departments pitching a multi-billion dollar freeway widening project.  The project, re-christened the “Interstate Bridge Replacement” is marching along exactly the path Bragdon foretold, the project claims to be reducing the number of lanes it will build, but is still planning a structure wide enough for ten or even twelve lanes of traffic.

The bridge width lie. Next time you see a story about the “Interstate Bridge Replacement” project, see if you can spot the project’s misleading talking points.  The whopper they’re asking you to repeat now is the false claim that they’re adding only a single so-called auxiliary lane to the existing I-5 crossing.  The reality is that their plans for a “narrower” bridge call for a 164 foot wide structure, enough to easily carry 10 or even 12 lanes of traffic.

This is the same lie ODOT and WSDOT used to try to sell the failed Columbia River Crossing a decade ago.  And this lie is just on the top of a pile of others, notably the name of the project, while it’s called a “bridge replacement” it’s really a 5-mile long, $5 billion highway widening project that mostly involves rebuilding every interchange for miles north and south of the bridge, and building enormous elevated highways in downtown Vancouver and across Hayden Island–facts concealed because the two DOTs have refused to release any renderings showing what the project would look like to people standing on the ground anywhere.  No one should take at face value claims about the number of lanes to be built:  Demand to look closely at the actual plans, which reveal they’re actually going to build a mammoth structure that can easily be re-striped, once built, to carry as many as twelve lanes of traffic.

Must read

How single staircase buildings could make multi-family housing more affordable, livable and interesting.  This story has that “one weird trick” vibe:  A fairly arcane building code regulation is primarily responsible for making US multi-family housing more expensive, more boring and less livable than in the rest of the world.  It’s the “dual staircase” rule:  Most multi-story buildings have to offer each dwelling unit two different staircase accesses.  That’s why multi-family buildings in the US are universally dominated by long, sterile, windowless corridors.

Flickr User Oatsy40

The requirement is a huge space waster, and makes it impossible to have apartments with cross flow ventilation.  It’s especially onerous for small lots, and precludes buildings with a single, central stairway with all apartments abutting a common stair landing. In theory, dual access provides greater safety, but there’s virtually no evidence showing life safety is any greater in such buildings. Allowing single staircase buildings on up to five story structures–which is common in the rest of the world, would give architects vastly more flexibility to design interesting and more affordable apartment buildings.

The real housing speculators, BC edition.  There’s a persistent search for villains in the face of high housing prices, and in Canada, it’s been fashionable to blame foreign buyers for home price inflation.  But an insightful analysis from the Sightline Institute shows, to paraphrase Pogo, “we have met the enemy, and he is us” (or maybe our parents).  Even in places like Vancouver, foreign ownership is a vanishingly small fraction of total home ownership.  Most homes are owned by Canadians, especially older, wealthier ones, who benefit from an array of public policies, notably a broad exemption from capital gains taxes on increasing home values.  Likewise, the policy establishment is dominated by homeowners; Sightline estimates that 93 percent of the members of the provincial assembly are homeowners, and a majority of these own more than one property.  As we’ve pointed out at City Observatory, the real burden of rising home prices represents an intergenerational transfer of wealth from the young to the old, and homeownership subsidies serve mostly to magnify the wealth gap between homeowners, who get generous support, and renters, most of whom get little or nothing. Blaming foreigners is politically convenient, but dodges the issue.

Austin:  A swirl of sprawl, housing inflation, gentrification and “democracy.”  Austin Texas is so hot right now.  The economy is booming, people and companies are moving in, and house prices are exploding.  The famously liberal oasis in the heart of Red Texas aims to have progressive policies, and has been struggling to revamp its zoning code to allow more housing construction to match burgeoning demand.  Writing at Bloomberg, Megan Kimble explains that while well-intended, these efforts have hung up by a state law that requires individual notifications to property owners in advance of zoning changes.  In one case, plans for a denser, mixed income development in the city were thwarted by neighboring homeowners:

. . . the opponents represented 31% of the land within 200 feet of the property, triggering a state law that would require Austin City Council to pass any rezoning with a three-fourths majority rather than a simple two-thirds majority. Perhaps reading the writing on the wall — namely, that city council did not have the nine votes to pass the rezoning — the development company withdrew its request.

Handing out sweeping veto authority to handfuls of current residents is a sure-fire recipe for making sure that little new housing gets build, especially in more central, and walkable locations.  The practical effect of this policy is to further push up prices, create more displacement, and drive housing development to an ever-expanding suburban fringe, locking in more sprawl and car dependency and undercutting efforts to promote transit and reduce greenhouse gases.

New Knowledge

How a loss of face-to-face interaction hurts innovation.  There’s a lot of debate and speculation about the ability of highly innovative firms to flourish in an environment with extensive remote work.  While some people and firms are claiming they can be just as productive working at a distance, it seems premature to make that claim, as many of the effects may be extremely long-term in nature.  A new study from Japan looks back at the impacts of the Influenze epidemic of the 1920s, and finds that the loss of opportunities for face-to-face interaction has significant long term impacts on innovation.

As with the Covid pandemic, social distancing to fight influenza dramatically reduced the amount of face-to-face interaction in society and workplaces. The authors of the study used Japanese patent application records to check the growth of patenting in different industries, and found that in the wake of the early 1920s influenza epidemic, patent activity fell fastest in collaboration-intensive industries (those industries in which multiple researchers jointly file for patents).

As with other patent-studies that have looked at “star-scientists” and network effects in inventive activity, this study also looked at how the influenza pandemic and the associated decline in face-to-face activity influenced longer-term productivity of researchers.  They found that early career collaboration is one key to later productivity (as measured by patents) and that the decline in collaboration associated with the pandemic depressed life-long productivity of researchers.  They summarize:

‘. . . the results show that the number of patent applications declined by 19% during the pandemic in the collaboration intensive fields. We further find that the decrease in patent applications in the collaboration intensive fields during the pandemic was mainly driven by the decrease in new entries into patent applications. These findings suggest that face-to-face communication indeed contributed to innovation by collaborative work. In addition, they also reveal that opportunities of technical guidance, communication, and knowledge exchange with seniors and colleagues in the early career of an inventor were especially important.

Hiroyasu Inoue, Kentaro Nakajima, Tetsuji Okazaki and Yukiko U. Saito, The Role of Face-to-face Contact in Innovation:
The Evidence from the Spanish Flu Pandemic in Japan, RIETI Discussion Paper Series 22-E-026 March 2022,

In the news

Oregon Public Broadcasting cited City Observatory’s Joe Cortright on the battle over the Interstate Briddge freeway widening project in Portland.
As part of his three-part series on solutions for congestion relief at Planetizen, James Brasuell cited our commentary on Louisville’s experience showing the even modest tolls eliminated traffic congestion on I-65.
Bike Portland directed is readers to the ten un-answered questions we raised confronting the controversial bridge project.
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