What City Observatory did this week

Using phony safety claims to sell a billion dollar freeway widening.  This past week, Sarah Pliner, a promising young Portland chef was killed when she and her bike were crushed by a turning truck at SE Powell Boulevard and 26th Avenue.

Sarah Pliner (Bike Portland)

This intersection is an Oregon Department of Transportation roadway, which has been long identified as one of the most dangerous in the state.  OregonDOT has dragged its feet to do anything to improve safety, instead prioritizing the fast movement of cars and trucks.  While its done nothing here at a facility thats repeatedly killed and maimed local residents, its peddling is $1.45 billion plan to widen Interstate 5 as a “safety” project–notwithstanding that the only crashes on that facility for years have been largely minor fender-benders.  At City Observatory, we’ve repeatedly shown that the Rose Quarter project would do nothing to address the real safety problems in Portland.  It’s tragic that another person had to die because Oregon DOT continues to use a cynical and self-serving definition of safety to avoid spending money to address its roads that kill.

Must read

AASHTO:  Your highway department is a climate denier.  The Federal Highway Administration has released draft regulations calling on state highway agencies to set goals and report their progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.  The American Association of STate Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) is violently opposed to these regulations.  Kevin DeGood of the Center for American Progress has a close, critical review of AASHTO’s comments.  The highway builders argue that they’re really powerless to do anything about greenhouse gas emissions, that it would be prohibitively costly to even monitor their impacts, and that FHWA lacks the authority to do anything.  DeGood comprehensively disposes of all these arguments:

. . .  DOTs think of GHG reductions almost exclusively in terms of EV adoption. Of course, this is ridiculous. DOTs are principally responsible for land use. Low-density sprawl doesn’t happen without highways. Full stop.

State DOTs claim that federal guidance isn’t needed because they’ve been great stewards of federal largesse and have improved the performance and safety of the highway system.  DeGood points out that that simply isn’t true:  when it comes to safety, highway deaths have increased sharply in the past decade from 34,000 per year to 43,000.  AASHTO is all about rationalizing federal handouts, and the organization is congenitally opposed to any accountability.

Mortgage rates soar; housing market crumbles. Since the beginning of the year, the interest rate charged on a 30-year, fixed rate mortgage has more than doubled, from about 3 percent to nearly 7 percent. This surge is a product of the Federal Reserve’s inflation-fighting policy. The 30 year mortgage rate is now higher than its been any time in the past two decades and the low interest policy that prevailed in the wake of the “Great Recession” is now over.  What its likely to do is choke off investment in new housing. Higher interest rates mean that homebuyers are less able to afford homes, and that it’s harder for investors to profitably build new housing.

Higher mortgage rates dampen the incentives for both buyers and seller:  buyers face higher costs for obtaining mortgages for their home purchases, and prospective sellers with mortgages also face the prospect that the mortgage interest rate on their next home may be much higher than the mortgage rate on their existing loan; this is likely to throttle “trade up” home purchasing for many current homeowners.  The housing market has benefitted from a decade of 30-year fixed mortgage rates at or below four percent.  Those days appear to be over.

New Knowledge

Cycling:  Cultural, not geographic factors predominate.  Cycling is more difficult and less comfortable in cold or wet weather and in hilly locations.  But this study shows that across the US and within metropolitan areas, these climate and geographic factors play a very minor role in explaining variations in cycling rates.  Instead, a range of demographic and cultural factors seem to be more strongly correlated with cycling.

University of Hawai’i economist Justin Tyndall used US census data to look at the correlations between bicycle commute-to-work mode share and a range of topographic, climatic, and social factors across the nation’s metropolitan areas.  A quick visual summary of this work shows few strong correlations between cycle mode share and temperature, precipitation or snowfall.  It turns out that hilliness actually has a slight positive correlation with cycle commuting (more people bicycle to work in hilly places, on average).  And cultural factors (proxied by presidential vote shares) seem to have a far stronger relationship to cycling. Metro’s that voted in larger number for Donald Trump have lower rates of cycle commuting.

What these data suggest is that cycling is less about weather or topography than it is about demographics and cultural attitudes towards cycling. As Tyndall concludes:

The role of geography in cycling uptake is frequently discussed in relation to the construction of bicycle infrastructure such as bike lanes. Opponents of bicycle infrastructure often point to hills or unsuitable weather as evidence that cycling can not be locally popular. The findings in this study have a potentially important lesson for policy: climatic and topographical endowments are unimportant to the general uptake of cycling. The exogenous cause of spatial heterogeneity in cycling appears to be related to local demographic and cultural idiosyncrasies.

Justin Tyndall, “Cycling Mode Choice Amongst US Commuters: The Role of Climate and Topography,” 2022, Urban Studies, 59(1)https://www.justintyndall.com/uploads/2/8/5/5/28559839/tyndall_cycling.pdf