What City Observatory did this week

Ten questions that deserve answers before making a multi-billion dollar decision. The Portland metro area is being asked by the Oregon and Washington Departments of Transportation to give the go ahead to a $5 billion, 5 mile long freeway widening project.  It would be one of the biggest infrastructure investments in the region’s history, but as they’re being rushed to judgement, there are ten as yet unanswered questions that are fundamental to making a good decision on this project.  Despite spending more than two years and tens of millions of dollars on reviving the failed Columbia River Crossing, the two state DOTs have consciously chosen not to provide answers to some of the most basic questions, including: How much will the project cost? who will pay for it?  What tolls will be charged on this bridge (and on parallel routes)?  The two state DOTs have also even concealed what the bridge would look like–although City Observatory has obtained 3D renderings via a public records request, that show a giant freeway bridge and its elevated approaches would loom over much of downtown Vancouver.

A giant new I-5 bridge would loom over downtown Vancouver and its redeveloping waterfront–views that have been hidden by ODOT and WSDOT.

The time to get answers to these ten very basic questions is before the two state’s irrevocably commit to spending billions of dollars on a project which, due to flawed traffic projections and a failure to correctly analyze toll impacts on traffic, may be wastefully over-sized.

Must read

Another reason to love carbon pricing. The Frontier Group’s Tony Dutzik is a long time proponent of carbon pricing (as is City Observatory).  Looking at the the energy use of bitcoin mining, Dutzik shows that there’s an important lesson for climate policy.  Bitcoin is “created” by the process of energy intensive computation, which itself leads to additional greenhouse gases. In response to this concern, some miners have shifted to greener power sources, like wind. But as Dutzik points out, this is a classic example of the Jevons Paradox:  When something becomes cheaper, people use more of it.  So while bitcoin miners may make use of cheaper wind energy, that frees up dirtier energy to be used for other purposes.

. . . when it comes to the climate, the amount of clean energy we use is irrelevant. It’s the amount of dirty fossil fuels we burn that matters.And even if we produce enough clean energy to meet our needs, our progress toward a stable climate will be slower than needed if our consumption of energy expands without limit.

The simple minded idea that more clean energy necessarily means less dirty energy is simply wrong.  The advent of more (and cheaper) green energy, just stimulates more overall demand for energy, and as long as fossil fuel doesn’t become progressively more expensive, pollution doesn’t decrease, or decrease very much.  The economic solution is to use market forces, via a carbon tax, to push up the prices of fossil fuels, so that people use progressively less of them.Flying cars will damage cities and democracy.  While the Jetson’s billed flying cars as an travel mode for all, the reality of this technology promises to be dramatically less egalitarian and more damaging to the environment writes the Center for American Progress infrastructure expert Kevin DeGood.

General aviation already hinges on substantial subsidies from the public that chiefly benefit a small number of high income users.  Moreover, flying cars will be noisy, energy inefficient and face serious capacity constraints.  But the key problem of flying cars is that they produce negative social and environmental consequences:

Unfortunately, flying cars represent the technological apotheosis of sprawl and an attempt to eradicate distance as a fact of life for elites who are wealthy enough to routinely let slip the bonds of gravity. Proponents offer a utopian vision of seamless convenience and efficiency that delivers broad-based societal benefits. The inevitable reality is that flying cars will confer advantages on direct users while exacerbating the geographic isolation of elites—a spatial manifestation of deepening inequality that undermines the shared experiences that are necessary to sustain democracy.

Boeing moves its headquarters, again.  Before there was Amazon’s HQ2 beauty contest, one of the highest profile corporate headquarters relocations was Boeing’s 2001 move of its corporate headquarters from Seattle to Chicago, ostensibly to enable the company to become smarter and more capable by being enmeshed in that financial and professional service center.  While it was viewed as a debacle for Seattle at the time, the Emerald City economy has flourished (and boomed) since then, and Boeing moved only a few hundred jobs to Chicago.  The move to the Washington, DC metro area puts the company’s headquarters in the same town as Amazon’s HQ2:  Arlington, Virginia.  The federal government is arguably Boeing’s single largest client, and as with so many industries, being close to the source of policy-making may be a critical factor in corporate success.

New Knowledge

Average trips by distance for States and Counties.  Its an oft-repeated maxim that most travel involves only very short trips, and a new data source from the US Department of Transportation confirms that view. The data, “Distribution of Trips by Distance” contains estimates for all US states and counties, by month, from 2019 onward of the number of trips taken by distance traveled.  It’s a huge database, on a given day in

The estimates are generated from scaling up a sample of anonymized location data from mobile devices to detect travel patterns.  Home locations are imputed based on long duration stays in particular locations; trips are defined as being away from a home location for more than ten minutes.  The data are mode-blind (but probably bottom censor some very short walking trips).  A fuller description of the methodology is provided at the US DOT website.

Here’s an example of how the dataset works.  We’ve focused on Multnomah County (which contains Portland) Oregon.  It has about 820,000 residents, who took about 2.6 million trips per day in February, 2022.  The chart below shows the trend in the number of trips by trip distance from 2019 onward; the decline in travel associated with the Covid-19 pandemic, beginning in the second quarter of 2021 is quite evident.

The website shows the distribution of trips by trip distance; a majority of all trips (55 percent) were less than three miles. That’s powerful evidence that non-auto modes of transportation could be used for many daily trips.  Those very short trips don’t account for much total mileage; it’s likely that more than 90 percent of all miles traveled on a given day are accounted for by trips that are more than three miles long.People in cities tend to take more shorter trips and fewer longer ones than their suburban counterparts.  In Portland, for example, Multnomah County residents take about 2.5 under one mile trips for every 10-25 mile trip they take.  Residents in suburban Clackamas County take about 1.6 under one mile trips for every 10-25 mile trip; and in further outlying Yamhill County, the ratio is 1.4.

Historic travel patterns provide some useful insights about urban transportation, but it’s important to recognize that trip lengths are a product of the built environment and the transportation system.  Sprawling, car-dependent development patterns increase average trip distances.  If we chose different travel modes, the distribution of economic activity would likely be different, and the pattern of trip differences would differ as well.

Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Distribution of Trips by Distance:  National, State and County level.  2022.