Thursday, April 16th, 2015

Airports Are Overstated As Economic Engines by Julie Cidell

Here’s another post from the London School of Economics’ USA Politics and Policy site. Thanks to the LSE and Julie Cidell for permission to repost – Aaron. ]

Julie Cidell 80x108Airports are a key part of our globalized world, and calls for their expansion and development are becoming increasingly common. But airports can have negative effects on their local areas– air and noise pollution, and traffic congestion. Do airports’ benefits outweigh their costs to local areas? In new research that examines the 25 largest airports in the U.S., Julie Cidell finds that while airports may drive economic activity within a region, more often than not, that activity is occurring outside the vicinity of the airport. She writes that aspects of an airport’s location, such as nearby industry and transport links often serve as job creators, rather than the airport itself.

It is rare to find an article or report about a major US airport that doesn’t describe it as the “economic engine” of its metropolitan region (see Figure 1). Indeed, there are many studies that indicate a positive connection between increasing air traffic capacity or air traffic and the number of firms in a region. Such studies are commonly used to justify airport expansion and the development of an “aerotropolis” or “airport city” through increasing the airport footprint and/or building new runways and terminals, under the logic that the region as a whole will benefit from the expansion. However, breaking down the connection between transportation and economic development across time and/or space can lead to different results. For example, in peripheral European regions, the causality arrow goes from air traffic to economic development, but in core cities, it’s the other way around.

We know that the negative effects of airports—air pollution, noise pollution, labor competition, and traffic congestion—occur at a local scale, within 5-6 miles of the airport boundary. While the argument is often made that “you knew there was an airport there when you moved,” that argument is usually wrong for two reasons: a) many airport-adjacent neighborhoods predate jet aircraft, and b) despite their vast, fixed infrastructure, airports move. For example, a study of Phoenix concluded that it was the airport and its disamenities that moved into residential neighborhoods, not the other way around. Nevertheless, very few studies of the air transportation-economic development relationship are broken down at finer scales to enable an equitable comparison to the negative effects of airports.

That was the purpose of my recent study. I focused on the largest 25 airports in the US and carried out two different kinds of spatial analyses as described below. For both, I found that more often than not, the economic development an airport brings to its region is not only equally spatially clustered as the negative environmental effects, but that development is occurring somewhere other than the vicinity of the airport. In other words, airport neighbors are not sacrificing for the good of the region as a whole, but for other neighborhoods equivalent in size to their own, raising questions of spatial equity regarding facilities that draw on a great deal of government money and yet are not producing benefits region-wide.

Figure 1 – Advertisement at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, 2005

Cidell Fig 1

Photograph by author.

Airports As Urban Infrastructure

Previous studies have argued that airports are significant job generators using a simple methodology: drawing circles of 2.5, 5, and 10 mile radii around the airport, counting the number of jobs within, and comparing that number to the central business district (CBD). I used the same methodology to draw rings around two major pieces of infrastructure found in every US metropolitan area: the largest shopping mall and the largest wastewater treatment plant. I also chose the point in the metropolitan area directly opposite from the airport across the CBD to act as a control. I then compared those numbers to the jobs in the CBD (all data were taken from the 2007 US Economic Census), with the results in Figure 2, below.

Figure 2 – Jobs in infrastructure radii compared as percentage of those in Central Business District (CBD)

Cidell Fig 2

Surprisingly, at all distances studied, a wastewater treatment plant is a more important “job generator” than the airport. Is a wastewater treatment plant therefore the “economic engine” of its region? Such a facility generates relatively few jobs, either directly or indirectly. Presumably, this finding does not have to do with the characteristics of the plant itself as a job generator, but with its surroundings. Such plants are often located on major waterways and can be considered a locally unwanted land use much as the airport. For both these reasons, they are likely to be surrounded by industrial land rather than residential. Similarly, of course, one could argue that it is not the airport qua airport that is generating jobs, but rather other features of its immediate location such as ground transportation access—features which potentially could be reproduced in other locations without the hazards of noise and air pollution.

Regional Spatial Analyses

The second part of this study focused on the specific categories of firms that have been shown to be attracted to metropolitan areas by air service—professional and administrative services—and determined their spatial distribution in comparison to the airport. Figure 3 is an example of how the four different spatial analyses look in one metro region, plus the major pieces of infrastructure I discussed earlier.

Figure 3 – Spatial analyses conducted for Phoenix

Cidell Fig 3

Map by author

The weighted mean center analyses of key infrastructure and professional services, indicated that for only 8 of the 25 airports studied (including Phoenix as pictured), that the center is within 5-6 miles of the airport. In other words, for two-thirds of the airports studied, the economic benefits are occurring at a greater distance from the airport than the negative effects. The standard deviational ellipses showed that this distance might not be too far: 76 percent of the airports were within the ellipse, suggesting that even if airports are not in close proximity to the center of airport-related development, they are within one standard deviation of it. However, that distribution might not be even across space. Local and global Moran’s I analyses showed that professional service firms and their associated jobs are clustered in space—but of the 25 airports studied, only 8 were in or adjacent to a “hot spot” of these firms. Six were in a “cold spot.” The airport may be driving economic activity within the region—but more often than not, that activity is occurring outside the vicinity of the airport.

Figure 4 – Storm clouds over O’Hare International Airport.

Cidell Fig 4

Photo by author.

The goal of my research was to empirically explore the frequently-made statement that airports are the “economic engines” of their regions. There are two parts to this: to what extent are airports drivers of local employment as compared to other large pieces of infrastructure, and what is the spatial distribution of the firms brought to a region by its air service? In both cases, I found that the “economic engine” claims are probably overstated, at least when we compare their spatial distribution to the distribution of the airport’s negative effects. Other major pieces of infrastructure such as shopping malls and wastewater treatment plants have as many or more jobs in their vicinity as airports do. The professional services firms that have been shown to be attracted to metropolitan regions are clustered in space rather than being evenly spread throughout the region, and those clusters are more often than not outside the range of where negative environmental and economic effects occur.

Any large piece of infrastructure, whether an airport, a shopping mall, or a wastewater treatment plant, will have positive and negative effects both within the immediate vicinity and across the entire region. Nevertheless, such infrastructure has to be sited somewhere. Taking into account the spatial distribution of that infrastructure’s effects, both positive and negative, can make clearer the questions of who benefits and who pays—as well as what might be done to offset the costs for those who suffer the negative effects of such infrastructure without reaping the economic benefits.

This article is based on the paper ‘The role of major infrastructure in subregional economic development: an empirical study of airports and cities’, in the Journal of Economic Geography.

Featured image: Phoenix Airport Credit: Robert Couse-Baker (Flickr, CC-BY-2.0)

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USApp– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the Author

Julie Cidell 80x108Julie Cidell - University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Julie Cidell is an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where her work focuses on two main areas: the political economy of transportation, and green buildings and public policy. She has also worked as a transportation engineer in Boston and taught physical geography in northern and southern California

This post originally appeared at the London School of Economics USA Politics and Policy site on November 4, 2014.

Monday, April 6th, 2015

Throwing Good Infrastructure Money After Bad in NYC

My latest is in today’s New York Daily News. It’s called “In NYC, throwing good infrastructure money after bad” and it’s about the grotesque costs of transport projects in the NYC area, compounded by terrible decision making. Here’s an excerpt:

Ten billion dollars — for a bus station. And if other projects are any guide, this price tag for a Port Authority Bus Terminal replacement is only going up from there.

That’s after we’ve committed: $4.2 billion at the PATH World Trade Center station; $1.4 billion for the Fulton St. subway station; $11 billion for the East Side Access project; $4.5 billion for just two miles of the Second Ave. Subway, and $2.3 billion for a single station extension of the 7-train.

Having grown numb to multi-billion price tags for building almost anything, New Yorkers might not know just how messed up all this is. In any other American city, even just one of these fiascoes might well have sunk the entire town.

For example, former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley attempted to construct an underground “superstation” in the middle of downtown for an express train he hoped to build to O’Hare Airport. Mothballed when the shell was complete after blowing the budget, this was one of his biggest boondoggles. But it still only cost his city $200 million — lemonade-stand money by New York standards.

Click through to read the whole thing.

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Topics: Public Policy, Transportation
Cities: New York

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015

New York’s Next Public Safety Revolution by Nicole Gelinas

[ As part of highlighting some of what you’ll find in City Journal, where I’m a contributing editor, I’m presenting this piece from last spring’s issue by Nicole Gelinas, in which she argues that De Blasio’s Vision Zero is nothing less than a new public safety revolution – Aaron. ]

Belkys Rivera wept as her English translator conveyed her words to the New York City Council in February. “I remember my heart breaking when hearing the news. The last day I saw my son alive was December 25, 2011.” Josbel was 23, starting a new store-management job. Belkys worried when he didn’t come home. “Nunca,” she responded when asked if she had expected to see two detectives on her doorstep at dawn. “The police asked me to get my other children nearby, and that’s when I began to realize that something had happened. The detectives were heartbroken as well, and they were explaining through [my] younger children what happened.” Josbel was dead—killed by a hit-and-run driver while crossing the Bronx’s Mosholu Parkway. “The driver . . . left the scene and burned the car,” she said. “I did my job as a mother,” she added, but “because of an atrocity committed by a man who should not have been driving”—the driver’s license had been suspended—“the world will be denied Josbel’s contribution.”

COURTESY OF NEW YORK CITY DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION (2)
Public outrage over pedestrian fatalities led to a citywide ad campaign featuring victims’ loved ones . . .

Amy Tam’s story was just as wrenching. She told the council about her three-year-old daughter, Allison Liao, who sang “The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round” as she rode the Q44 bus and who loved “using upside-down laundry baskets as drums”—and who died last fall, “holding Grandma’s hand,” after “a huge SUV” abruptly turned into a Main Street crosswalk in Flushing, Queens, and struck her. “We are never going to see her start kindergarten,” Tam lamented.

Too many New Yorkers die every year because of reckless drivers. Thankfully, new New York mayor Bill de Blasio has shown leadership in this area, unveiling an ambitious and workable plan to make traffic safer. Backed strongly by New York Police Department chief William Bratton and the city council, the mayor’s multiagency initiative, called Vision Zero, will seek to reduce traffic deaths in the city to zero, just as the police try to cut murders to zero. The inspiration behind the plan, which reinforces and expands on efforts by Michael Bloomberg’s administration, comes from Sweden’s use of innovative road design and smart law enforcement, which has reduced overall traffic fatalities in Stockholm by 45 percent—and pedestrian fatalities by 31 percent—over the last 15 years. When a child runs after a bouncing ball into a residential street and a speeding car strikes and kills him, the Vision Zero philosophy maintains, the death shouldn’t be seen as an unavoidable tragedy but as the result of an error of road design or behavioral reinforcement, or both. We already think this way about mass transit and aviation. These days, a plane crash or a train derailment is never solely explained by human error (a train conductor falling asleep, say); it also is a failure of a system that allowed a mistake to culminate in disaster. Of course, engineers and regulators can’t eliminate all injuries and deaths; but by applying rigorous, data-based methods, they can cut down on them dramatically.

Nobody favors road deaths, but Vision Zero won’t be an easy sell. Implementing it will require working out complex power issues between city hall and Albany, as well as transforming public attitudes. Even in New York, teeming with pedestrians and traffic, many still view speedy driving as an entitlement. Drivers will need to realize—and here, better engineering, law enforcement, and education will be crucial—that getting behind the wheel in a dense urban environment is very different from seizing liberty on the open road.

New York City has already come a long way in reducing traffic fatalities, it’s important to recognize. Last year, New York suffered 288 crash deaths, including 170 pedestrians. That sounds bad, and it is, but in 1990, New York had 701 traffic deaths, with 366 pedestrians killed. And 20 years before that, the city saw nearly 1,000 traffic deaths in a single year; it wasn’t unusual to lose 500 pedestrians annually. New York’s current traffic-fatality numbers compare favorably with other American big cities. An Atlanta resident is more than three times more likely to die in a traffic crash (adjusted for population); a Los Angeleno faces twice the risk. But New York remains behind—in some cases, far behind—other global cities in this area of public safety: Paris, London, Hong Kong, and Tokyo are all less dangerous. A citizen of Stockholm—the gold-standard metropolis for traffic safety—faces just a third of a New Yorker’s risk in dying by vehicle. Last year, the Swedish city, with a population of 900,000, suffered only six traffic deaths. The Gotham equivalent would be 60 such fatalities—not nearly five times that number.

New York City’s improved numbers have resulted in part from state-level policy reforms. New York was the first state to get a seat-belt law, in 1984, a controversial measure at the time—the governor of Maine vetoed a similar bill, saying that it “crosse[d] the line between public interest and personal choice”—but a major lifesaver. New York was also a pioneer in fighting drunk driving. More than half a century ago, everyone, including most public officials, thought it was perfectly okay for people to drink and drive. The legal limit for blood-alcohol content was 0.15 percent, nearly twice today’s limit, and enforcement was nonexistent. A handful of New York State leaders—above all, health chief William Haddon, Jr.—sought to change this blasé attitude. As Barron Lerner, author of One for the Road, a history of drunk driving, recounts, Haddon headed the first state health department driver-research center, in 1954, and it soon found that half the drivers involved in single-car crashes in New York’s Westchester County had blood-alcohol levels above the 0.15 limit, and another 20 percent had levels of at least 0.05 percent. By 1960, thanks in part to Haddon’s visionary work, New York lowered the legal limit to 0.10 percent (it’s now 0.08). During this same period, New York also became the first state to enact an “implied consent law,” which revoked the licenses of drivers who refused to submit to alcohol tests. And police stepped up enforcement while numerous public campaigns targeted drunk driving.

Countless lives have been saved. In Mississippi or Louisiana, you’re two and a half to three and a half times more likely to die in a car crash than in New York State, in part because it’s still more culturally acceptable in those Southern states to get plastered and hit the road. Nationwide, 13 percent of drivers are drunk when they kill a pedestrian. In New York City, 8 percent of vehicular killers are inebriated.

Haddon, it’s worth noting, was one of the first public-health researchers to think of auto crashes as predictable and preventable rather than as random tragedies. “Haddon had come to deplore the use of the word accident, which he believed made automobile crashes sound inevitable, and, by implication, not preventable,” writes Lerner. His approach was to figure out who—and what—was causing deaths on the road, and then work to prevent the fatalities.

Over the past half-decade, New York City has pursued that vision aggressively, seeking to determine who and what continues to kill on the road. Despite media focus on taxi crashes, the city found, 79 percent of New York’s killer drivers are behind the wheel of their own private car or truck, not a commercial vehicle. Most of the drivers are male. In pedestrian deaths, vehicle speed and driver inattention are major culprits. As a recent analysis of five years’ worth of crashes by the city’s department of transportation concludes, “in 53 percent of pedestrian fatalities . . . dangerous driver choices—such as inattention, speeding, failure to yield—are the main causes of the crash. The pedestrians in these cases were following the law.” Three-year-old Allison Liao’s grandmother was following the law when the SUV killed the little girl. The MTA bus driver who hit and killed 23-year-old Ella Bandes on January 31 “was looking in the mirror to try to avoid a taxi at this complicated, pedestrian-unfriendly intersection,” her father, Kenneth Bandes, told the city council; his daughter wasn’t “texting or talking on her phone,” as some people often assume of crash victims. In another 17 percent of pedestrian deaths, a driver error—often excessive speed—made a pedestrian’s mistake a death sentence.

Make no mistake: speed is lethal. Someone hit by a car going 20 mph will live, 90 percent of the time; someone hit at 40 mph has only a 30 percent chance of surviving. Speeding distorts the judgment of both driver and potential victim. “Drivers overestimate their own ability to stop” and “underestimate the impact” of a crash, says Rune Elvik, a civil-engineering professor at Denmark’s Aalborg University. Drivers wrongly think that they’ll save a lot of time by speeding on free stretches of otherwise clogged roads (lights or traffic eventually slow them down). And a child crossing the street has difficulty judging a fast-moving vehicle’s distance. A 2010 paper by the University of London’s John P. Wann and colleagues found that “children . . . could not reliably detect a vehicle approaching at speeds higher than approximately 25 mph.”

Mayor Bloomberg’s transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, used her authority over street design to try to reduce speeds and sharpen driver attention. Times Square’s now famous pedestrian island, filled with tables and chairs, and similar islands and protected bike lanes that Sadik-Khan set up across the city give drivers something to notice, reminding them that people live and work where they’re zooming along. Streetscape changes like these often narrow traffic lanes, as well, which tends to make drivers more careful and makes it less likely that pedestrians will get stuck in oncoming traffic as they rush to cross a street—they can now can take refuge on the islands. Other Sadik-Khan changes included “countdown clocks,” which show crossing pedestrians how many seconds they have before a light turns green, and “split-phase” green lights, which let pedestrians cross before cars and trucks get to turn—a response to the fact that left-turning drivers disproportionately kill.

The numbers show the effectiveness of the design changes. At modified intersections, fatalities have fallen by a third since 2005, twice the city rate. Redesigning Jackson Avenue in Long Island City, Queens—a very dangerous road—by extending medians, painting new crosswalks, and delaying turns cut crashes with injuries by 63 percent. Building a pedestrian island and adding crosswalks on Macombs Road in the Bronx reduced deadly crashes by 41 percent. “Pedestrian-oriented designs save lives,” says Polly Trottenberg, de Blasio’s transportation commissioner.

De Blasio’s Vision Zero project will keep up the Bloomberg-era engineering efforts to change driver behavior, focusing on 25 key “arterial” streets, wide avenues like Queens Boulevard (long called the “Boulevard of Death” for its many traffic fatalities) and the Bronx’s Mosholu Parkway, where Josbel Rivera died. These roadways make up just 15 percent of Gotham’s streets—but 60 percent of the city’s traffic-related fatalities occur on them. The arteries “were designed for the fast movement of cars and trucks,” says Trottenberg, and making them look less like highways will slow drivers. To get the job done, though, de Blasio must be willing to take the heat, as Bloomberg did, for imposing changes that a vocal minority will strongly resist. It’s not a good sign that the mayor, in his February press conference on Vision Zero, wouldn’t say whether he thought that redesigning Times Square had been a good idea.

The smart use of data is a second crucial component of Vision Zero. De Blasio is directing his taxi regulators to explore outfitting taxis with “black boxes,” which can record data and sound warnings when drivers go too fast. The devices could not only deter drivers from breaking the law but could also give the city more data on who speeds, and where. The police could use the information to deploy manpower and the transportation department to redesign dangerous intersections. And Commissioner Bratton says that improved data collection and presentation in all areas of NYPD activity, including traffic enforcement, will be a major goal of his second term as the city’s top cop. That Bratton’s NYPD takes traffic safety seriously was evident in its recent flyers warning drivers that illegal double parking, by reducing visibility and forcing bicyclists into traffic lanes, put innocent people in harm’s way. In March, police officers were out in force ticketing drivers who had parked in bike lanes, pleasing street-safety advocates who had long complained of lax enforcement.

In addition to road design and data crunching, the de Blasio administration will take a more traditional approach to combating speeding: reducing city speed limits. Lowering limits was “the most important” step that Sweden took two decades ago in its traffic-safety turnaround, says Stockholm mayor Sten Nordin, whose city helped pioneer Vision Zero. New York will ask Albany, which controls many of the city’s laws, to let it cut the city’s default speed limit—the maximum speed that drivers can move when they’re not on a highway—from 30 mph to 25 mph. And the city wants to set up more “slow zones,” where 20 mph is the top speed. “The standard in densely populated cities where Vision Zero has been implemented around the world” is 20 mph, Amy Cohen, whose son, Sammy Cohen Eckstein, died on Prospect Park West last year, reminded the city council.

The real challenge will be enforcement. “His memorial is still up,” says Cohen of the site where her son died, yet people still speed there. Deterring such lawbreaking will mean ticketing speeders more aggressively, as well as revoking recidivist speeders’ licenses. After a series of high-profile traffic deaths this winter, the NYPD has been nabbing more speeders and other reckless drivers. The police wrote 7,648 speeding tickets in January, up 20 percent from last year.

An NYPD-led traffic-ticketing blitz runs into problems as a permanent strategy, though. As City Council Member James Vacca notes, “Since 2001, the highway division has been cut by 50 percent. Local resources are stretched.” De Blasio is adding some officers but not nearly enough to make up for past cuts. Moreover, enforcement is inconsistent and incomplete. Thus, Elvik argues, “there are advantages in using automated enforcement”: speed cameras. “There is a much higher risk of detection” with cameras, he adds, and they make for “a fairer system. Speed cameras treat all drivers equally”—even drivers with public-sector union stickers on their cars, for example, whom police tend to treat leniently. The unpredictability of “ticket blitzes” also angers the public. Over time, people appreciate consistency and predictability. If you know that you will always pay a price for driving 10 miles over the speed limit, you probably won’t speed.

Speed cameras are common in cities with better safety records than New York’s. A decade ago, London was only 29 percent safer than New York for pedestrians, relative to population size; now, with lots of cameras in place, it’s twice as safe. “London has a pretty decent network of speed cameras,” says Bruce McVean of Movement for Liveable London. “It makes it a lot easier for local authorities.” London’s transport authority estimates that the cameras help save 500 people annually from death or severe injury. And after New York City started ticketing red-light runners two decades ago, serious injuries at the targeted intersections fell 25 percent; more red-light cameras would improve on those safety gains.

New York politics have made speed-camera use tricky, though. Albany, not city hall, controls the number and placement of the city’s speed cameras, just as it controls the speed limit. Last year, the city won the right to install 20 speed cameras only after a protracted campaign, which benefited from then-mayor Bloomberg’s support, including his shaming of three state senators who had stalled legislation. “Maybe you want to give [their] phone numbers to the parents of the child when a child is killed . . . so that the parents can know exactly who’s to blame,” the mayor said. This year, Mayor de Blasio secured Albany approval for an additional 120 cameras. The power the mayors won is limited, though. The city can only use the cameras to enforce the law on roads that run past schools, and during school hours, though drivers have the most opportunity to speed at night, when there is less traffic congestion. The fine for exceeding the speed limit by at least 10 mph isn’t high: $50. And speed-camera tickets don’t result in penalty “points” on a lawbreaker’s driver’s license—a significant omission, since drivers with too many points for violations can temporarily lose their licenses. As part of Vision Zero, de Blasio wants Albany to relinquish its right to dictate the number, placement, and use of cameras.

Albany will probably resist. First, police unions hate cameras, fearing that they will make human officers redundant. “Ridiculous,” says Paul Steely White of the Transportation Alternatives advocacy group. There would still be plenty for cops to do in traffic enforcement—stopping drivers and levying fines and points for failing to yield to a pedestrian, say, or for texting behind the wheel. Another, more reasonable, charge is that cameras will just become another way for the government to shake people down for revenue. The city and state must combat this perception. “The sole purpose of traffic law should be to prevent harm,” says Leonard Evans, a research veteran of the auto industry and author of the book Traffic Safety. As a way of easing concerns, the city and state could announce that they would split camera-ticket money equally among all New Yorkers via a rebate on their tax return. Expanded camera use should actually shrink revenue over time, as drivers learn to obey the rules. Privacy is a third concern. As Evans notes, though, driving is a public activity, monitored by police for a century now, and traffic cameras “record only people who are breaking the law.” Anyone who uses an E-ZPass already has his movements tracked. A fourth obstacle is the state’s dislike of “home rule.” New York governor Andrew Cuomo isn’t known for giving up power, and de Blasio is pushing for home rule on multiple fronts, from the minimum wage to rent regulation. De Blasio would be wise not to take an all-or-nothing approach, as he did for a time in his battle with Cuomo over a proposed city income-tax surcharge to fund a prekindergarten program.

. . . urging New Yorkers to take caution behind the wheel.

When a cabdriver runs over a little boy in a crosswalk, or an SUV driver mounts a sidewalk and plows into someone, the public reaction is: the driver should be behind bars. But he’s not. As Karen Friedman Agnifilo, chief assistant district attorney in Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance, Jr.’s office, says: “It can be difficult for people to understand why a crash is not always a crime.” For one thing, in 1990, the state’s appeals court ruled that, as Agnifilo puts it, “an unexplained failure to perceive” on the part of a driver—absent some outrageous conduct—“is not a crime.” In other words, a driver really can say “I didn’t see him” and walk free under the law, even if he had been driving irresponsibly.

New York law currently limits vehicular homicide or assault charges to drunk-driving cases. Several states, though, including Illinois and Florida, now make it possible to charge sober drivers with homicide if they kill. New York does let prosecutors charge for criminal recklessness. Vance is willing to use this law aggressively, as he did in charging Adam Tang, who allegedly videotaped himself trying to break the speed record for motoring around Manhattan. The question is whether juries will accept that driving dangerously is similar to driving drunk.

New York unquestionably needs tougher penalties for deadly driving. “Look at these sentences,” says Agnifilo, pointing to two 2013 vehicular-homicide cases in the city. One defendant got a maximum of four years; the other, six. “Do these sentences seem long enough to you?” Without stiffer punishments for drunk offenders like these, it’s hard to justify longer sentences for other forms of careless driving; the maximum penalty for criminal recklessness is a year. State Senator Mike Gianaris and Assemblywoman Marge Markey of Queens have introduced a bill that makes it a felony if someone with a revoked or suspended license injures or kills someone with a vehicle. Senator Joseph Addabbo, Jr., a cosponsor, observes that, over the last five years, license-less drivers have killed 181 people in New York City crashes—and largely gotten away with it. Under the bill, they could face four years in prison. The measure not only targets a particularly lethal set of drivers; it also could help change public attitudes by making it clear that operating a potentially deadly machine on roadways is a privilege. A related proposal empowers police and prosecutors to seize the plates from a car or truck operated by a driver without a license before he crashes. City hall, backed by several local lawmakers, is asking Albany for several other legal changes, including increasing the punishment for fleeing a crash—one year in prison—so that it’s equivalent to the four-year penalty, practically speaking, for inflicting a drunk-driving injury or death. As Juan Martinez, general counsel at Transportation Alternatives, explains, the driver who hit Josbel Rivera faced a more serious charge (arson) for torching his car than he did for leaving Rivera to die.

Agnifilo says that the NYPD’s “crash investigation squad” now responds to crashes that result in death or “critical” injury. That’s an improvement over two years ago, when the police investigated crashes only when victims were “likely to die.” She would like to see them respond to crashes that cause “serious” injury, the standard for criminal charges. In that case, “district attorneys would be called to more crash scenes, allowing prosecutors to make more appropriate charging decisions,” she says.

To prepare cases, the DA relies on witness testimony as well as subpoenaed cell-phone and text records and, increasingly, thanks to a new federal law, on black-box evidence from cars. Agnifilo wants some straightforward changes from Albany to give prosecutors more resources to prepare their cases. Prosecutors need the right to draw blood at the scene of a serious crash without a warrant, which can take hours to secure—while the driver detoxes. The DA’s office would like more time, under “speedy trial” requirements, to prepare vehicular-homicide cases—as it gets for other homicide cases.

Prosecution of smaller infractions can serve as another deterrent. Thanks to better police enforcement, the Manhattan DA received 2,556 drunk-driving cases last year, up 18 percent from 2009. Though the charge is only a misdemeanor, it can mean thousands of dollars in legal costs and a license suspension, as a current public-service advertisement reminds potential drunk drivers. Here, too, tighter laws could complement better police enforcement and prosecution. Currently, if you rack up two DUI convictions in five years, you lose your license for six months. Cuomo wants anyone convicted of drunk driving twice in three years to lose his license for five years. “Three strikes, and you’re out and you are off the road, period,” the governor said this winter.

The most potent factor in making Gotham traffic safer is that citizens and lawmakers are starting to demand change. “We’re reaching a point of critical mass on the pedestrian safety issue,” says Gianaris. The senator says that after two Queens deaths—eight-year-old Noshat Nahian and Angela Hurtado, an older woman on her way to play bingo—caused by drivers with suspended licenses, he grew angry. “This should be a felony.”

New York is a city made up of powerful special interests, and now a grim new lobby has organized itself: family members of crash victims. Parents, including Amy Cohen and Amy Tam, have helped create Families for Safe Streets, encouraging the public to push for speed cameras and other traffic-safety measures. Lerner, the historian of drunk driving, whose own nephew, Cooper Stock, died on the Upper West Side in January after a cabdriver struck him in a crosswalk, says that the movement is similar to the early movement against drunk driving. “Angry parents and relatives” highlighted “the absurdity of a society” that looked the other way as drunk drivers killed. Just as you now know that you shouldn’t drink and drive, texting and driving should be equally taboo. “As more and more potential distractions for drivers emerge, we should be less—not more—tolerant of a mind-set that excuses such behaviors because ‘everybody does them,’ ” says Lerner. The politically active New Yorkers who show up to community meetings to pressure city council members and Albany legislators on bread-and-butter issues are starting to view dangerous driving as one of those issues. Parents want their kids to get to school safely; elderly people perceive themselves as vulnerable.

Those demanding safer streets expect local government to use better data and smarter engineering and enforcement to achieve that end. Many observers once contended that the murder rate would never fall, but thanks largely to smart policing, it is down 85 percent since 1990—nearly twice as big a drop as traffic deaths. New Yorkers are thus likely to hold de Blasio to his stated goal: a quick and marked reduction in traffic deaths. “We are thrilled that the mayor is so supportive,” says Amy Cohen. But she and her fellow grieving parents, grandparents, siblings, uncles, and aunts will be “a public force” if “things aren’t moving along as expected.”

This post originally appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of City Journal.

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Topics: Public Policy, Transportation
Cities: New York

Monday, March 9th, 2015

Where’s America’s Entrepreneurial Economy?

Go to almost any city and you’ll hear them brag about their startup scene. But the reality of entrepreneurship in America is very different, as my latest column in the March issue of Governing discusses. Here’s an excerpt:

Yet despite our perceptions, entrepreneurship has trended downward in recent decades. The Brookings Institution found that so-called “firm entry rates” have declined since the 1970s and that they suffered a steep fall post-2005. And though millennials are often seen as an entrepreneurial generation, The Wall Street Journal reports that business ownership among those under the age of 30 recently hit a 24-year low. Self-employment has seen a similar downward trend. A study by Economic Modeling Specialists International found that both the total number of self-employed and their share of jobs have fallen since 2006.

So with conditions seemingly so ripe for an economy fueled by entrepreneurs and freelancers, why are we not seeing its emergence on any large scale? And what can be done about that?

Click through to read the whole thing.

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Topics: Economic Development, Public Policy

Thursday, February 26th, 2015

Rahm’s Runoff

Rahm Emanuel is heading to a runoff in his bid for re-election as Chicago mayor. I discuss the matter in my latest piece over at City Journal. In short, while Emanuel has done himself no favor with his “Rahmses” style and unapologetic catering to the upscale Chicago, much of the dissatisfaction with him comes from a denial that the bill for past decisions is finally coming due.

Here’s an excerpt:

The dynamic Emanuel seemed just what the flagging city needed. His dead-fish-mailing, F-bomb-dropping style seemed perfectly in tune with hardboiled Chicago sensibilities. He started fast, unleashing a blizzard of initiatives and announcements that boosted the morale of the city’s establishment. And four years on, Chicago has hit its stride in many ways. In November, Crain’s Chicago Business reported that jobs in the greater downtown area had reached an all-time high. The city has enjoyed a tourist boom, drawing over 50 million visitors last year, and several new hotels are expected to open. Chicago’s downtown tech scene has seen strong growth. Thousands of new apartments are going up in downtown every year.

Chicago is also uniquely burdened among major American cities by its twin deficits. Both the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago are in dire financial condition. Illinois’s unfunded pension liability stands at $111 billion. It owes another $56 billion in unfunded retiree health-care obligations. Chicago itself faces $35 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. The total liability for all local government obligations adds up to as much as $83,000 per household. This flow of red ink can’t be staunched with simple “belt tightening.” One wonders if Emanuel understood the full extent of the financial hole when he sought the mayor’s office.

It’s tempting to pin the blame for Emanuel’s travails on hubris, and he has committed his share of unforced errors. He manages the local media with Washington-style spin control. He’s also shown a lack of regard for the optics of leadership. Daley projected a South Side “neighborhood guy” persona even while cozying up to the Loop business class. By contrast, Emanuel seems unconcerned about coming across as an elitist. His schedule is full of meetings with wealthy donors. Over half of his top donors benefit in some way from city largesse. Emanuel built a fancy selective-admission school named after President Obama on the white and wealthy North Side while closing 50 public schools in the city’s lower-income neighborhoods.

Click through for the whole thing.

Thursday, February 19th, 2015

The New Aspirational Suburb


Interior of the Palladium concert hall in Carmel, Indiana. Photo by Zach Dobson

My latest post is online at New Geography and is called “The Emerging New Aspirational Suburb” and is about how upscale business suburbs are reinventing themselves as sub-regional centers in their own right, including more urban nodes and amenities like arts facilities and events. In part this is exploiting their strong market position, but it’s also a response to the now evident challenges that face many suburbs as they reach maturity. The piece focuses on Carmel, Indiana, which as more of the pieces put together than anyplace else I know of currently, but the same approach is being pursued elsewhere.

It’s a longform piece, but here are some excerpts:

Beyond the historic downtown, Carmel has also implemented multiple New Urbanist style zoning overlays, including on Old Meridian St. and Range Line Rd. (the city’s original suburban commercial strip). These promote mixed use development, buildings that front the street, and multi-story structures. Infrastructure improvements and TIF have been used in these areas as well. There’s also a major New Urbanist type subdivision in western Carmel called the Village of West Clay.

[Mayor Jim Brainard] also keenly aware of global economic competition and the fact that Indiana lacks the type of geographic and weather amenities of other places. He frequently uses slides to illustrate this point. In one talk he said, “Now this picture, guess what, that’s not Carmel; but this picture is the picture of some of our competition. Mountains – that’s San Diego of course, mountains, beautiful weather, you know I think they have sunshine what, 362 days out of the 365…. What we’ve tried to do is to design a city that can compete with the most beautiful places on earth. We’ve tried to do it through the built environment because we don’t have the natural amenities.” While the claims to want to equal the most beautiful places in the world may be grandiose, the key is that mayor believes Carmel’s undistinguished natural setting and climate requires a focus on creating aesthetics through the built environment.

The city’s demographics have also expanded to become much more diverse. The minority population grew 295% between 2000 and 2010, adding 9,630 people and growing minority population share from 8.7% to 16.3%. 12% of the city’s households speak a language other than English at home. Many of these are highly skilled Chinese and Indian immigrants working for companies like pharmaceutical giant Lilly. Even black professionals are increasingly moving to Carmel, with the black population growing 324% in the 2000s and black population share doubling to 3%. Carmel is not a polyglot city today, but it’s far more diverse than in the past.

Critics also pointed to state figures showing Carmel with nearly $900 million in total debt. While it is a wealthy community that can afford the payments, in a conservative state like Indiana, a suburb accumulating nearly a billion dollars in debt raises eyebrows.

Click through to read the whole thing.

I should note that the mayor of Carmel disputes media accounts about cost overruns on various projects that I cite in the piece. He attributes these to other explanations, such as deliberate decisions to increase scope.

Thursday, February 5th, 2015

What is the MTA Reinventing, Anyway? by Alon Levy

[ Alon Levy’s Pedestrian Observations site is a great look at public transit for those seriously interested in the subject. He’s lived in many countries and has studied systems around the world, bringing a global perspective to local projects. And he takes an analytical, “good government” approach of proposing systems that both produce high value and are cost effective. Here’s his take on what’s need at the New York MTA – Aaron. ]

In the last few years New York’s MTA has gone through multiple cycles in which a new head talks of far-reaching reform, while only small incremental steps are taken. The latest is the MTA Transportation Reinvention Commission, which has just released a report detailing all the way the MTA could move forward. Capital New York has covered it and hosts the report in three parts. Despite the florid rhetoric of reinvention, the proposals contained in the report are small-scale, such as reducing waste heat in the tunnels and at the stations on PDF-pp. 43-44 of the first part. At first glance they seem interesting; they are also very far from the reinvention the MTA both needs and claims to be engaging in.

Construction costs are not addressed in the report. On PDF-p. 53 of the first part, it talks about the far-reaching suburban Grand Paris Express project for providing suburb-to-suburb rapid transit. It says nothing of the fact that this 200-km project is scheduled to cost about 27 billion euros in what appears to be today’s money, which is not much more than $150 million per km, about a tenth as much as New York’s subway construction. (Grand Paris Express is either mostly or fully underground, I am not sure.) The worst problem for transit in the New York area is that its construction costs are an order of magnitude too high, but this is not addressed in the report.

Instead of tackling this question, the report prefers to dwell on how to raise money. As is increasingly common in American cities, it proposes creative funding streams, on the last page of the first part and the first six pages of the second part: congestion pricing, cap-and-trade, parking fees, a development fund, value capture. With the exception of congestion pricing, an externality tax for which it makes sense for revenues to go to mitigation of congestion via alternative transportation, all of these suffer from the same problem: they are opaque and narrowly targeted, which turns them into slush funds for power brokers. It’s the same problem as the use of cap-and-trade in California.

One of the most fundamental inventions of modern government is the broad-based tax, on income or consumption. Premodern governments funded themselves out of tariffs and dedicated taxes on specific activities (as do third-world governments today), and this created a lot of economic distortion, since not all activities were equally taxed, and politically powerful actors could influence the system to not tax them. The transparent broad-based tax, deeded to general revenue through a democratic process, has to be spent efficiently, because there are many government departments that are looking for more money and have to argue why they should get it. Moreover, the tax affects nearly all voters, so that cutting the tax is another option the spending programs must compete with. The dedicated fund does neither. If the broad-based tax is the equivalent of market competition, a system of dedicated funds for various government programs is the equivalent of a cartel that divides the market into zones, with each cartel member enjoying a local monopoly. In this way there’s a difference between the hodgepodge of taxes the MTA levies and wants to levy and Ile-de-France’s dedicated 1.4-2.6% payroll tax: the payroll tax directly affects all Francilien workers and employers, and were it wasted, a right-wing liberal politician could win accolades by proposing to cut it, the way New York Republicans are attacking the smaller payroll tax used to fund the MTA.

The proposals of where to spend the money to be raised so opaquely are problematic as well. There is a set of reforms, based on best practices in Continental Europe and Japan, that every urban transit system in the first world should pursue, including in their original countries, where often only some of those aspects happen. These include proof-of-payment fare collection on buses, commuter trains, and all but the busiest subway systems; all-door boarding on buses; mode-neutral fares with free transfers; signal priority and bus lanes on all major bus routes, with physically separated lanes in the most congested parts; a coherent frequent bus network, and high off-peak frequency on all trains; and through-service on commuter rail lines that can be joined to create a coherent S-Bahn or RER system. As far as I can tell, the report ignores all of these, with the exception of the vague sentence, “outfitting local bus routes with SBS features,” which features are unspecified. Instead, new buzzwords like resiliency and redundancy appear throughout the report. Redundancy in particular is a substitute for reliability: the world’s busiest train lines are generally not redundant: if they have parallel alternatives those are relief lines or slower options, and a shutdown would result in a major disruption. Amtrak, too, looks for redundancy, even as the busiest intercity rail line in the world, the Tokaido Shinkansen, has no redundancy, and is only about to get some in the next few decades as JR Central builds the Chuo Shinkansen for relief and for higher speeds.

The only foreigners on the Commission are British, Canadian, and Colombian, which may have something to do with the indifference to best industry practices. Bogota is famous for its BRT system, leveraging its wide roads and low labor costs, and Canada and to a lesser extent the UK have the same problems as the US in terms of best industry practices. Swiss, French, German, Japanese, Spanish, and Korean members might have known better, and might also have been useful in understanding where exactly the cost problems of the US in general and New York in particular come from.

The final major problem with the report, in addition to the indifference to cost, the proposal for reactionary funding sources, and the ignorance of best industry practices, is the continued emphasis on a state of good repair. While a logical goal in the 1980s and 90s, when the MTA was coming off of decades of deferred maintenance, the continued pursuit of the maintenance backlog today raises questions of whether maintenance has been deferred more recently, and whether it is still deferred. More oversight of the MTA is needed, for which the best idea I can think of is changing the cycles of maintenance capital funding from five years, like the rest of the capital plan, to one year. Long-term investment should still be funded over the long term, but maintenance should be funded more regularly, and the backlog should be clarified each year, so that the public can see how each year the backlog is steadily filled while normal replacement continues. This makes it more difficult for MTA chiefs to propose a bold program, fund it by skimping on maintenance, and leave for their next job before the ruse is discovered.

I tag this post under both good categories (“good transit” and “good/interesting studies”) and bad ones (“incompetence” and “shoddy studies”) because there are a lot of good ideas in the report. But none of them rises to the level of reinvention, and even collectively, they represent incremental improvement, of the sort I’d expect of a city with a vigorous capital investment program and industry practices near the world’s cutting edge. New York has neither, and right now it needs to imitate the best performers first.

This post originally appeared at Pedestrian Observations on November 25, 2014.

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Topics: Public Policy, Transportation
Cities: New York

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

New York’s Little Blizzard That Couldn’t

The “storm of the century” hit New England hard but was a bust in New York. I went out and surveyed the realm yesterday morning and filed at story over at City Journal:

New York’s “storm of the century” turned out to be a bust. Rather than the predicted 30-inch “snowpocalypse,” only eight to 10 inches hit most of the city. That’s not to say that it had no effect. It happened to be the perfect amount of snow needed to turn Central Park gorgeous. By 10 o’clock, park streets and paths had already been plowed, and joggers, kids with sleds, and even skiers were out enjoying the winter wonderland. With the streets mostly empty, the morning was a welcome respite from traffic noise, bicycle rickshaws—and bikes, period, as cyclists appeared to be skipping the festivities. I missed the clop-clop of horse-drawn carriages, however—a sad preview of what awaits if Mayor de Blasio succeeds in his quest to ban carriage rides.

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Topics: Public Policy, Urban Culture
Cities: New York

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015

Replay: A Tale of Two Blizzards

[ With the New York portion of the widely touted blizzard turning out to be a bust, I thought I’d dust off this 2009 piece I did for New Geography on cities, blizzards, and what the response to them says about the urban culture – Aaron. ]

January 1979 saw one of the worst blizzards in city history hit Chicago, dumping 20 inches of snow, closing O’Hare airport for 46 hours, and paralyzing traffic in the city for days. Despite the record snowfall, the city’s ineffectual response was widely credited for the defeat of Mayor Michael Bilandic in his re-election bid, leading to Jane Bryne becoming the city’s first female mayor.

In January 1978, a similar blizzard had struck the city of Indianapolis, also burying the city in a record 20 inches of snow. Mayor Bill Hudnut stayed awake nearly two days straight, coordinating the response and frequently updating the city on the snow fighting efforts through numerous media appearances. Nevertheless, the airport closed and it was several days before even major streets were passable. But when it was all over, Hudnut emerged a folk hero and went on to become arguably the most popular mayor in city history, serving four terms before voluntarily stepping aside.

While major snow is much less frequent in Indianapolis than Chicago, and Hudnut’s response certainly bettered Bilandic’s, these twin blizzards illustrate a powerful difference in citizen expectations between these two cities, reflecting two of the broad approaches to urban service provision in America today.

People in Chicago expect and demand high quality public services. Chicago is the “City that Works”, and woe be to the mayor when it doesn’t. That’s why every mayor since Bilandic has treated snow clearance like a military operation, deploying a division of armored snow trucks to assault the elements at the merest hint of a flake, often leaving more salt than snow in their wake. If Chicagoans pay relatively higher taxes than the rest of the country, at least its citizens know that they are getting something for their money, whether it be snow clearance, garbage collection, street lighting, landscaped boulevards, or bike lanes.

In Indianapolis, by contrast, public services are not the main concern. People gripe if snow is not cleared, but are not outraged. No Indianapolis mayor ever lost his job for failing to deliver good services. Rather, taxes have always been the primary issue. Nothing illustrates this better than the most recent mayoral election. Buoyed by an emerging demographic super-majority, a large campaign war chest, and the support of almost every establishment figure of both parties, Mayor Bart Peterson confidently raised city income taxes by 0.65 percentage points shortly on the heels of a major property tax jump. In the fall, however, he lost his re-election bid to political neophyte Greg Ballard, who ran on a taxpayers first platform. Ballard won without significant backing from his own Republican party, supported only by a collection of grass roots activists, bloggers, and his own relentless door-knocking campaign.

The divergent citizen and policy preferences of both cities continue to the present, amply illustrated by this very winter. Mayor Daley, facing a recession-induced budget gap, decided to save money by ordering that residential streets not be cleared by workers clocking overtime. Citizen unhappiness over the state of the streets during December snows led even the widely popular Daley to backtrack on this experiment, reverting to the traditional all out assault for the balance of winter.

In Indianapolis, after 12.5 inches blanketed the city this January, crews took several days to clear its snow routes and, as per its standard operating procedure, did not plow residential streets at all. The local media carried tales of people’s laments, but ultimately the city government knows that the response to the snow will be forgotten soon after it melts. Higher tax bills, by contrast, are long remembered. In an inverse situation to Chicago, people in Indianapolis sleep at night knowing that, if services haven’t been all that great, they at least have more money in their pockets.

While both cities have long seemed happy pursuing their respective courses, storm clouds are gathering over both strategic models of operation.

Backing down from a high service stance in government is almost impossible. Government spending only ever seems to go one way. Faced with that logic, and the clear expectations of its citizens, Chicago in effect decided to double down. With the much celebrated resurgence of urbanism, Chicago put its chips on a soaring Loop economy driven by an emerging status as one of the top global cities, a real estate boom, and a series of tax and fee increases. It embarked on a civic transformation epitomized by community showplaces like Millennium Park, miles of top quality streetscape improvements, a new terminal at Midway Airport and the start of a multi-billion dollar O’Hare modernization, one of the nation’s best bicycling infrastructures, and perhaps most ambitiously, a bid for the 2016 Olympic Games.

This model is increasingly showing signs of strain, however. Many taxes and fees, including the nation’s highest sales tax at 10.25%, appear to be close to maxed out. The real estate crunch hit hard at Chicago’s transfer tax revenue, another key source of city funds. This, in combination with a weak economy, has hammered the city’s budget, leaving Daley with tough, often unpopular choices to make. The CTA recently raised fares. City parking meter rates will be quadrupling under a privatization plan recently signed, hopefully plugging operating budget holes – something Daley had previously resisted. As with New York City, Chicago may be faced with the cold reality of both service cuts and tax increases.

More importantly, as with the dot-com bubble before it, there are real questions as to whether the financial and real estate driven economy that fueled Chicago’s boom will come back in full force any time soon. In the meantime, the economy and cost of living in the city are squeezing the middle class harder by the day, and despite perhaps America’s biggest condo boom, the city’s population is slowly shrinking. All this leaves Mayor Daley, although still very popular, with perhaps the toughest leadership challenge of his tenure.

Meanwhile Indianapolis faces problems of its own. It too has budget challenges, just as years of deferred investment are finally catching up with the city. Indianapolis has a $900 million unfunded backlog of curb and sidewalk repairs alone. It is the 13th largest municipality in America, but has the 99th largest transit system. And, more troubling, the city now finds itself outflanked by its own suburbs.

At one time Indianapolis could comfortably decide to purchase bronze-level services while other cities paid more for gold. But now its own suburbs are offering silver, and at a lower price point in taxes than the city is selling bronze. Many of its suburbs today not only have better schools and safer streets than the central city, they feature fully professional fire departments, large park acreage, lavishly landscaped parkways exceeding city standards, and even better snow removal. In the recent storm, upscale north suburban Carmel finished plowing its cul-de-sacs before Indianapolis finished its main arteries. When people can pay less and get more just by moving to the collar counties, that’s what they do. Tens of thousands of people have left the merged central city-county in recent years. Only a large influx of the foreign born has kept Indianapolis from losing population.

The current economy is exposing the long term structural weaknesses of both civic strategies. Chicago and Indianapolis show that both higher service and lower service models face big challenges and that neither approach represents a safe harbor in the current economic storm.

This post originally ran on February 14, 2009 at New Geography.

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Topics: Public Policy, Urban Culture
Cities: Chicago, Indianapolis

Monday, January 19th, 2015

Bicycles and Race in Portland by Sean Benesh

[ Portland resident Sean Benesh recently put out a book about a book called The Bohemian Guide to Urban Cycling. It’s targeted at an audience who may not (yet) get this cycling in the city thing and wants to know more. There are some parts that are even relevant to the expert, however, including a chapter on the intersection of bicycling and gentrification. You may recall that Portland had some debates about this in the recent past. Sean wrote a chapter about this for the book and I’m pleased to be able to publish a condensed version here. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll note that Sean and I have a publishing project we’re doing together, but I think you’ll agree this piece stands on its own merits – Aaron. ]

The flashpoint for the gentrification conversation along Portland’s North Williams revolves around the bicycle. The cultural appetite for what the creative class likes and enjoys is in stark contrast to that of the African-American community. “North Williams Avenue wasn’t hip back in the late 1970s. There was no Tasty n Sons. No Ristretto Roasters. No 5th Quadrant. Back then, it was the heart of the African American community. It was wonderfully colorful and gritty.” As the black community saw their own businesses close down through economic disinvestment, they weren’t replaced with new businesses that they regarded as desirable. In the several hours I spent today at Ristretto I have seen roughly a hundred patrons come in and go out, plus others sitting outside on the patios of one of several nearby restaurants. Only three were African-American. As I mentioned earlier, the buildings that surround this coffee shop are home to many African-American families. And yet these new businesses do not appeal to their cultural tastes.

This all came to a head over a road project to reconfigure North Williams and Vancouver Avenue. Both are one-way roads a block apart that carry a high volume of bicycle traffic. Vancouver’s southbound traffic flows carry cyclists towards the Lloyd Center and downtown Portland and so sees its heaviest usage in the mornings. Williams on the other hand carries northbound traffic away from the city center which means its highest use is in the afternoons and evenings when bicycle commuters are heading away from the city center. But the focal point of all of this controversy is specifically tied to North Williams Avenue because this is where most of the new businesses are coming in.

A New York Times article featured this stretch of road including one of the business owners who opened up the beloved Hopworks BikeBar. “North Williams Avenue [is] one of the most-used commuter cycling corridors in a city already mad for all things two-wheeled. Some 3,000 riders a day pass by Mr. Ettinger’s new brewpub, which he calls the Hopworks BikeBar. It has racks for 75 bicycles and free locks, to-go entrees that fit in bicycle water bottle cages, and dozens of handmade bicycle frames suspended over the bar areas. Portland is nationally recognized as a leader in the movement to create bicycle-friendly cities.” Other national newspapers and magazines have also picked up on all of the buzz happening along North Williams. In Via Magazine, Liz Crain writes, “With 3,000 commuters pedaling it every day, North Williams Avenue is Portland’s premier bike corridor. Visitors, too, find plenty worth braking for on two blocks of this arterial, including two James Beard Award–nominated chef-owned restaurants and a slew of hip shops and cafés.” Sunset Magazine has several features on North Williams including: “Go green on Portland’s North Williams Avenue: Enjoy a low-key urban vibe thanks to yoga studios, indie shops, and cafes.”

With images of happy (white) hipsters pedaling bicycles, doing yoga, and eating gourmet food, the nation is given a taste of inner N/NE Portland that is not reflective of the reality of the neighborhood nor the tension surrounding gentrification. These magazines showcase things to see, do, and eat along North Williams with helpful hints like, “Scene: A low-key urban vibe, courtesy of yoga studios and green indie shops and cafes … Dress code: waterproof jacket and jeans with right leg rolled up … Native chic: A waterproof Lemolo bike bag … The Waypost: Creative types come to this coffeehouse for locally produced wine and beer, as well as live music, lectures, and classic-movie screenings.”

However, not all of the residents are necessarily in favor of these changes taking place. And there are certainly other national media outlets who have picked up on the “other side” of the North Williams story. “Located in a historic African-American community, the North Williams businesses are almost exclusively white-owned, and many residents see bicycles as a symbol of the gentrification taking place in the neighborhood.”

The tensions of racism and gentrification have culminated in ongoing debates over North Williams’ status as a major bicycle thoroughfare. Sarah Goodyear of The Atlantic Cities (CityLab) writes, “Sharon Maxwell-Hendricks, a black business owner who grew up in the neighborhood, has been one of the most vocal opponents to the city’s plan for a wider, protected bike lane. She can’t help but feel that the city seems only to care about traffic safety now that white people are living in the area. ‘We as human beings deserved to have the same right to safer streets years ago,’ she says. ‘Why wasn’t there any concern about people living here then?’” This picks us on the tension surrounding the North Williams project in general, and in particular the controversy surrounding repainting the traffic lanes to incorporate new designs which cater to the growing number of bicyclists who use this corridor.

Goodyear goes on to lay out both sides of the controversy:

Jonathan Maus, who runs the Bike Portland blog and has reported extensively on the North Williams controversy, thinks the city should have stood its ground and gone forward with the project, but wasn’t willing to do so in part because of the political weakness of scandal-plagued Mayor Sam Adams, who has been a strong biking advocate and is closely identified with the biking community.

“There’s been too much emphasis on consensus,” said Maus. “I’m all for public process, but I also want the smartest transportation engineers in the country on bicycling to have their ideas prevail.”

Maus, who is white, says the history of North Williams shouldn’t be dictating current policy, and that safety issues for the many people who bike on the street are urgent. “At some point as a city, you have to start planning to serve the existing population,” he said. “The remaining black community is holding traffic justice hostage. It’s allowing injustice in the present because of injustice in the past.”

In light of this, why is North Williams the flashpoint for controversy? The tension and angst is about more than simply repainting a roadway; it embodies the most visual representation of gentrification in inner N/NE Portland. For longtime African-American residents, as expressed above by Maxwell-Hendricks, she and others felt that they had simply been neglected for decades. This negligence took the form of economics, housing, and general concerns of safety. Their frustration is that it wasn’t until middle-class whites began moving into the neighborhood that these issues began to be addressed and rectified. This notion of systemic racism helped created this area and these same forces are at play in gentrifying this once predominantly black neighborhood.

The African-American community feels it has been slighted once again. The initial citizen advisory committee revealed the imbalance: “Despite North Williams running through a historically African American neighborhood, the citizen advisory committee formed for the project included 18 white members and only 4 non-white members.” This is why the push for safety along the North Williams corridor has caused such an uproar. “The current debate about North Williams Avenue––once the heart of Albina’s business district––is only the latest chapter in a long story of development and redevelopment.”

For many in the African-American community the current debate over bike lanes along North Williams is simply one more example in a long line of injustices that have been forced upon their neighborhood. Beginning in 1956, 450 African-American homes and business were torn down to make way for the Memorial Coliseum. “It was also the year federal officials approved highway construction funds that would pave Interstates 5 and 99 right through hundreds of homes and storefronts, destroying more than 1,100 housing units in South Albina.” Then came the clearance of even more houses to make way for Emanuel Hospital. For more than 60 years, racism has been imbedded in the storyline of what has taken place along North Williams.

For many, the North Williams project is more than repainting lines. As Maus reported, “A meeting last night that was meant to discuss a new outreach campaign on N. Williams Avenue turned into a raw and emotional exchange between community members and project staff about racism and gentrification.” In his article, Maus noted the painful history of Albina as the primary catalyst for the tension today.

Lower Albina—the area of Portland just north and across the river from downtown through—was a thriving African-American community in the 1950s. Williams Avenue was at the heart of booming jazz clubs and home to a thriving black middle class. But history has not been kind to this area and through decades of institutional racism (through unfair development and lending practices), combined with the forces of gentrification, have led to a dramatic shift in the demographics of the neighborhood. The history of the neighborhood surrounding Williams now looms large over this project.

It was at this meeting that a comment from one of those in attendance changed the entire trajectory of the evening as the conversation quickly moved away from the proposed agenda. One woman said, “We have an issue of racism and of the history of this neighborhood. I think if we’re trying to skirt around that we’re not going to get very far. We really need to address some of the underlying, systemic issues that have happened over last 60 years. I’ve seen it happen from a front row seat in this neighborhood. It’s going to be very difficult to move forward and do a plan that suits all of these stakeholders until we address the history that has happened. Until we address that history and … the cultural differences we have in terms of respect, we are not going to move very far.”

The crux of the conflict is not about bicycles nor bike lanes nor even new businesses and amenities. It is about racism. The push for creating a more bikeable and bike-friendly commuter corridor has raised the ire of longstanding residents who had felt neglected and voiceless for decades. “The North Williams case study is an example of the City inadequately identifying, engaging and communicating with stakeholders.”

Now that more whites are moving in are changes taking place. “Some question why the city now has $370,000 to pour into a project they say favors the bike community while residents for decades asked for resources to improve safety in those same neighborhoods. To the community, the conversation has polarized the issue: white bicyclists versus the black community.” But is this issue completely race-related? Portland has been and continues to expand its bicycle infrastructure throughout the city, not just in N/NE Portland. There are also several other main bicycle corridors that receive a high volume of bicycle commuters, but since they do not go through any ethnic neighborhoods they have not created this much controversy. This does not minimize the tension and angst over the North Williams project; nor does it downplay the role that racism has played throughout the history of that community.

Note: Footnotes in the original text have been removed. Some hyperlinks have been added.

This is a condensed chapter excerpt from The Bohemian Guide to Urban Cycling.

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Topics: Public Policy, Urban Culture
Cities: Portland
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