Raising the sales tax is not the answer to GCRTA’s funding woes

joe calabrese town hall
joe calabrese town hall

GCRTA CEO Joe Calabrese prepares to speak at the Clevelands for Public Transit town hall meeting on June 23 at Antioch Baptist Church (courtesy of Clevelanders for Public Transit).

Pragmatists have long invoked the phrase “Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.” Generally speaking, that’s solid advice. And, as a card carrying incrementalist sellout™, it’s something I can get behind. Most of the time, that is.

Some issues are so substantial, so systemic in nature, that tinkering on the margins is unlikely to remedy the problem. And that’s one of our major pathologies here in Cleveland. We seem to try tackling these big, hairy problems with the same tired toolkit of solutions, despite the fact that they haven’t worked yet. There’s only so many times you can run headlong into a brick wall.

The problem isn’t that we make the perfect the enemy of the good. It’s that, in Cleveland, we tend to make the facile the enemy of the good.

In other words,  I mean that we almost always fall back on old ideas, regardless of whether or not they have worked or are the best tool for the job.

Our ongoing transit funding dilemma

Take public transportation. For years, transit boosters here have offered up exactly one solution for our system’s funding woes: make the State of Ohio pay its fair share. And, for the love of God, of course it should! But it’s not going to happen anytime soon.

Yet, even when we finally start talking about local funding options, we fall into familiar trap. At a town hall meeting last week, Newburgh Heights Mayor Trevor Elkins – the only member of the GCRTA Board of Trustees to vote against the new suite of fare hikes and service cuts – suggested that we raise the county sales tax to fund the agency.

Now, I’m not saying that there’s anything prima facie wrong with funding transit with sales tax revenues. Cuyahoga County voters approved a 1% sales tax to find GCRTA when it was established back in 1975, and this tax – still the most generous in Ohio – has been a resounding success. The fact that it continues to provide a majority of GCRTA’s revenue 41 years later, despite not being altered, is a testament to the fact that sales taxes can be useful policy tools.

The problem is that, while the transit tax itself hasn’t changed since 1975, the overarching conditions in the region have. Cuyahoga County’s ceaseless population loss has slashed the revenue generating potential of this tax by some $68 million.

Why is the answer always “raise the sales tax”?

Moreover, over the past two decades, Cuyahoga County leaders have turned consumption taxes into a veritable slush fund for bad ideas, many of which have degenerated into little more than thinly veiled corporate welfare. Want to build an oversized convention center and Medical Mart Global Center for Health Innovation? Let’s raise the sales tax! The Browns want a free, new scoreboard? Sin tax! The Republicans need hotel rooms? Bed tax!

Eventually, when you keep throwing tens of millions of good tax dollars after bad into these sorts of projects, people get wary. And, to be fair to Mayor Elkins, he said as much at the town hall meeting. But he still fell back on sales tax hike, perhaps because we lack the policymaking creativity to try something new. Cleveland’s leaders have no incentive to come up with good ideas when they can get away with the same old facile ones.

The problem is, just because something is easy to understand doesn’t make it an effective policy. Cuyahoga County already has the highest county sales tax rate (2.25%) and combined sales tax rate (8%) in the state. Franklin County is second at 7.5%. While we are no longer at the statutory sales tax cap (the state raised that to 8.75%), continually raising consumption taxes is not a long term recipe for success in a county that has been treading water, at best, for nearly 50 years.

Wait, you may say, didn’t you just say that sales taxes could be useful for funding transit? Yes, I did; but I don’t support this idea for a number of reasons, a few of which I will expound upon here.

The problem with raising the sales tax — again

First, as I already mentioned, Cuyahoga County residents already bear the single highest sales tax rate in the state. Raising it further will simply stress a shrinking tax base further.

Economists typically prefer consumption taxes to income taxes, because the latter tend to generate larger distortionary effects. But that’s not to say that consumption taxes don’t do this as well. By raising the relative costs of goods, sales taxes alter the equilibrium between supply and demand by decreasing the amount that people consume. This creates a market inefficiency, known as a “deadweight loss,” which reduces social welfare. It’s wonky as hell and seems weird, but it’s at the heart of economic theory.

Such deadweight losses have clear effects. According to a recent study by researchers at the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) in Germany, sales tax increases in the US harm localities. The study, which considers the effects of changes in combined sales tax rates on business activity from 2002-2011, found clear, negative effects.

Each 1% increase in the combined sales tax rate reduces total payrolls within a county, particularly among retail businesses and smaller firms. According to the authors, “These results show a clear negative and significant association between the combined state and county sales tax rate and total annual payroll.”

These deleterious effects are particularly apparent when a county’s sales tax rate is high in relation to neighboring counties. As the map below illustrates, the four counties bordering Cuyahoga have combined see taxes ranging from 6.5% to 7%.

ohio county sales tax rates

Combined sales tax rates in Ohio by county (courtesy of Ohio Department of Taxation).

Multiple studies have demonstrated that these types of cross-border differences can negatively affect the county with the higher rate. In a 2012 study (PDF), Jeffrey Thompson of the Federal Reserve and Shawn Rohlin of Kent State University examined how sales tax rate differences across state borders affected economic activity from 2004-2009. They found that when border counties raise their sales taxes by 1%, total employment falls by 3.8-5.8%. The bulk of this effect occurs in the retail industry, which sees a 7.6% decline in employment.

Second, it is a well-established fact that consumption taxes are regressive, as lower income residents end up paying a larger portion of their income than wealthier residents. This effect is concerning in Cuyahoga County, where we see extremely high rates of poverty and economic inequality in many areas. But this issue is even greater, in this case, as low-income residents are largely concentrated in impoverished neighborhoods within the City of Cleveland and inner-ring suburbs. Wealthier residents, in contrast, have moved out into the outer suburbs and exurbs.

Why does this matter? Because these suburbs are closer to the neighboring counties, making it easier for middle- and higher-income families to take advantage of lower sales tax rates. Consumers are far more likely to cross county borders to make purchases at lower sales tax rates if they live near those adjacent counties. According to Gary Cornia and colleagues (paywall), consumers are more likely to travel 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) a border to take advantage of lower sales tax rates, but that effect essentially disappears when you increase the distance to 30 kilometers (18.6 miles).

Moreover, the low-income residents residents living in Cleveland and the inner-ring suburbs are also far less likely to have ready access to a car. Compare Cleveland, where more than 10% of households lack a car, to Solon or Gates Mills, where that number is just 1.1% and 0.4%, respectively.

As Thompson and Rohlin demonstrate, “cross-border shopping is more prevalent when transportation costs are low.” This essentially guarantees that a sales tax hike will be uber regressive for low-income, transit-dependent Cuyahoga County residents, as they lack the means to avoid it readily. So they would bear an even more disproportionate burden of funding GCRTA, in addition to already shouldering the fare increases.

Third, raising the transit sales tax seems neither seems imprudent from a political perspective. Under Ohio law, county leaders can increase the sales tax by 0.25% to raise general fund revenues without triggering a vote. Our former County Commissioners took advantage of this back in 2007 for the convention center.

That option is not available for transit. Any effort to increase GCRTA’s sales tax rate would have to go before voters for approval. Now, it’s entirely possible that such a proposal would pass. Cuyahoga County voters have approved similar tax increases for far less beneficial purposes in the past. Yet, it’s not guaranteed. Summit County voters rejected this same sort of proposal in 2014 by a convincing 54-46 margin.

Are Cuyahoga County residents that much more inclined to support transit, particularly the type of voters who show up in off-year elections? Does it make sense for GCRTA and local officials to spend considerable political and financial capital trying to get approval for a proposal that does nothing to staunch the winds that have buffeted the transit system for decades?

Let’s choose good policy over simple policy

We know that GCRTA is a fighting a heroic, sisyphean battle against sprawl, population loss, and overbuilt vehicular infrastructure each day. So why don’t we pull policy levers that raise transit funds while simultaneously helping to remedy the underlying challenges?

There are two good options available that serve this dual purpose: a parking tax, which I have already proposed, and scaling up GCRTA into a real regional transit agency by incorporating the collar counties.

Both of these are possible under current law. They will require legislative action and voter approval at the local level, yes. But if we have to launch a campaign to gin up support for local transit funding, we might as well do it right.

When it comes to bike lanes, if you build it, they will shift

bike to work day
bike to work day

Cleveland area commuters congregate downtown for Bike to Work Day on May 20 (courtesy of Bike Cleveland).

When it comes to mobile emissions, not all bike rides are created equal.

The cyclist who drives her bike into downtown to take part in Critical Mass or rides along the Towpath on a Saturday afternoon does not actually eliminate vehicle miles traveled (VMT) or reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to any extent. (This is why the National Bike Challenge’s methodology tends to irk me).

None of this is to say that these rides are somehow inferior or less than those taken for transportation; they’re not. Recreational riding is good for public health, enjoyable, and it increases the number and visibility of cyclists on roads. But it is somewhat disingenuous to claim they improve air quality or mitigate climate change.

How do we calculate the emissions savings from bike projects?

Now, we already know that shifting people from cars to bikes can go a long way towards promoting these ends. The problem is that we lack good tools to let us demonstrate this on the small scale. How do we prove, definitively, that investing in a particular piece of bike infrastructure gets people to change their travel mode? And how can we calculate the associated emissions reductions?

In some ways, recreational cycling may make this process more difficult. Traditional methods, like bike counts, don’t distinguish between those who are riding for recreation and those who are riding for transportation. Knowing the difference between the two and being able to isolate that segment of the latter who would have otherwise driven is essential for cycling advocates. We need to be able to quantify the demonstrable benefits of bike infrastructure in order to get funding for projects under certain programs, particularly the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) Improvement program.

In part because we struggle to get accurate data, bike infrastructure projects remain a small sliver of overall CMAQ projects. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) estimates, for instance, that CMAQ needs to invest $3.5 million in bike projects to reduce one ton of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), compared to just $38,000 for diesel vehicle retrofits and $76,000 for idle reduction programs. Perhaps the cost-benefit ratio for bike projects would improve if we had better data on how bike infrastructure directly affects mode choice.

New research may provide an answer

Fortunately, researchers are beginning to develop better tools to do just this. In a new study (paywall) in the journal Transportation Research Part A, researchers Seyed Amir H. Zahabi, Annie Chang, Luis F. Miranda-Moreno, and Zachary Patterson explore how the built environment and accessibility to bike infrastructure affects mode choice and GHG emissions among commuters in Montreal.

In the study, the authors broke Montreal down into a series of 500-square meter neighborhoods based on population density, employment density, cycling network density, transit accessibility, and land use mix. It defined neighborhoods using one of five typologies: downtown, urban, urban-suburb, inner suburb, and outer suburb.

Using this approach, they sought to answer two main questions. First, what are the effects of the built environment and the network connectivity of the transportation system on cycling rates during the period in question (1998-2008)? Second, how did cycling rates and the associated GHG emissions change over this period?

In order to study the first question, they estimated the effects of the neighborhood typologies on cycling rates. However, this isn’t as straightforward as it may seem. One cannot directly estimate this effect on mode choice, as people often self-select into certain types of neighborhoods that fit their preferred mode. For example, I consciously looked for apartments in certain parts of Washington, DC so that I could be within a short walk of a Red Line station. The same holds for cyclists, who may choose to live in more bike-friendly areas.

When your independent variable (in this case, neighborhood type) is not completely independent from your dependent variable (commute mode choice), we say they are endogenous. The researchers employed a statistical approach, known as a simultaneous equation model, which allows them to control for this endogeneity.

Drawing the link between bike lanes and GHG reductions

To study their second research question, they utilized a variable that allowed them to measure the distance a person lives from the nearest bike path or lane. This enabled them to consider how increasing or decreasing that distance may affect commute mode choice and GHG emissions.

It’s this second question that I want to focus on, as it gets to the heart of the issue I raised earlier. Fortunately, the authors provide some concrete evidence that investing in bike infrastructure does foster mode shift. When it comes to bike lanes, if you build it, people really do come.

Based on their results, they found that reducing the distance that a person lives from the nearest bike facility increase the odds that s/he will bike to work by 3.7%. In Montreal, the city expanded its bike network to 648 kilometers (402.6 miles) in 2014, from 603 km (374.7 miles) in 2008. The expansion directly led to a 1.7% decrease in vehicle GHG emissions within the city.

This reduction stacks up well with alternative emissions control options. As the authors conclude,

As in other studies, it is found that cycling infrastructure accessibility is positively linked to bicycle usage, playing a positive role in reducing transportation GHG emissions, by shifting the mode share of bikes. Although this effect may appear small (about 1.7%), it is as big as the estimates we have found in our previous research when converting all the transit diesel buses to hybrid technology and electrifying the commuter trains in Montreal at the same time. This is to say that the GHG benefit from adding low-cost new cycling infrastructure can be as important as other more costly strategies.

Hopefully this type of research can provide further, tangible justification for incorporating bike infrastructure in the urban toolkit to tackle climate change. We need to build real (preferably protected) bike lanes in order both to increase the number of people biking regularly and broaden the type of people biking from hardcore recreational cyclists to normal people using bikes as a transportation mode. Because, while recreational biking is great, only transportation biking can help us solve these pressing crises

Asking some lingering questions about cutting service on the Waterfront Line

GCRTA's Waterfront line (courtesy of htabor).

GCRTA’s Waterfront Line (courtesy of htabor).

After months of an extended and often contentious debate, the GCRTA Board of Trustees finally voted on a series of measures to help the agency balance its budget for the next year. Surprising no one, Board members approved a series of stepwise fare increases that will take effect on August 16, which should increase annual operating revenues by $3.5 million. Single-ride fares will increase to $2.50 from $2.25 currently and, ultimately, rise again to $2.75 in August 2018. All day passes will increase from $5 to $5.50 and ultimately $6, while monthly passes will jump from $85 to $95 and then $105.

For the sake of comparison, WMATA, the Washington, DC area transit operator, charges $1.75 for bus fares and off-peak rail fares; the base fare for on-peak rail users is $2.25. MTA, the transit operator in New York, in turn, charges $2.75 for a single trip and $116.50 for a monthly pass. In other words, Cleveland’s fares are now on par with, or even higher than, some of the most extensive transit systems in the country.

But, as we know, the fare increases alone were not enough to cover the $7 million hole in GCRTA’s budget. Staff also proposed a series of service reductions that would have cut bus service hours and miles by approximately 4%. Courageously, the Board decided to punt on this issue and make GCRTA’s management responsible for approving the service cuts. These cuts, which have been scaled back since the initial proposal, will save the agency less month ($3 million vs. $4 million) but affect fewer customers (1% vs. 1.8%).

One of the more hotly debated portions of this list of service reductions involves GCRTA’s Waterfront rail line, which ferries customers from the Tower City transit hub along the Cuyahoga River and lakefront to the South Harbor. The Waterfront Line, which opened to much fanfare during Cleveland’s 1996 bicentennial celebration, cost GCRTA roughly $50 million to construct. But ridership soon fell off a cliff, as the city continued to shrink and the Flats entered a prolonged period of decline.

The agency reduced service on the Waterfront Line in 2010, but it subsequently restored it in 2013 to account for new investments on the East Bank of the Flats. While ridership may have increased somewhat since that point – we don’t really know – the line has rightfully earned its name as the “Ghost Train.” Fewer than 400 people ride the train on weekdays, and nearly all of those people take it during rush hours. During off-peak times, GCRTA says 2 people ride each train, on average.

Personally, I have long questioned the utility of the line. I think I have used it maybe 2 or 3 times in my life. If I am traveling to the Flats or the lakefront, I would much rather walk or hop on a trolley, but I freely acknowledge I’m abnormal.

That said, I do know people who ride the train and see its utility. I also recognize that there is no other transit serving the Flats, and it can be pretty daunting to try and walk up the hill from West 10th to West 9th, particularly if you are of limited mobility.

Moreover, I might be pissed off if I was one of the people investing in the redevelopment of the Flats. Investors and developers thought they had reached an agreement with GCRTA to ensure the Waterfront Line would serve this area. Adam Fishman, the Board Chair of Flats Forward, offered an eloquent articulation of this viewpoint in an op-ed over the weekend. As he wrote,

In 2015, RTA increased services to the Waterfront Line and saw an uptick in riders after the opening of Flats East Bank.

Now, RTA’s proposal is to reduce weekday service, to end at approximately 7 p.m. — but limiting service to these new entertainment venues during evening hours when downtown residents are looking to explore dining options is a misstep. Limiting transit service to this area will greatly hurt the potential for growth and will prevent the Flats East Bank from becoming part of the uninterrupted fabric of downtown in the minds of those who live, work and play here.

To an extent, he’s right! But we also need to recognize the fact that GCRTA has to balance its budget, and, in the process, it needs to guarantee that the pain is spread evenly. If the agency tried to dump all of the service cuts on low-income communities of color on the East Side, it may have run afoul of federal environmental justice and Title VI guidelines and would almost certainly have facee a lawsuit.

Yes, fixed rail investments can – and should – promote development. But sometimes when you build it, they don’t come. GCRTA dumped millions of dollars into the Waterfront Line for 20 years, with little to show for it. Flats developers can’t simply demand cuts for thee but not for me.

With all of that in mind, I still have some lingering questions that I wish had been asked during this debate. I think getting this information would have given all of us a clearer picture of the real value of the Waterfront Line, relative to the various bus routes that faced service reductions.

  1. We should recognize that, while the Flats is turning into something of a playground for wealthy white people, there are a lot of service sector employees who need to work in these establishments. What percentage of these service industry workers in the Flats and along North Coast Harbor rely on/use public transit? How does it compare to other lines that were cut or faced cuts?
  2. Will reducing service frequency on the Waterfront Line (and the Green line) have any effect on the lifespan of the aging Breda LRV cars? Could it reduce wear and tear on these trains to any noticeable extent?
  3. If the employers in the Flats are so concerned about protecting rail service, are they willing to pitch in? I’ve seen various estimates on how much GCRTA would save from cutting Waterfront Line service, varying from $200,000-500,000. The Flats East Bank development represents some $750 million in investments. Some of the entities involved, including Ernst & Young, are worth billions. Could they not come together to help defray or cover the costs of retaining service? Consider the fact that the Cleveland Foundation gave GCRTA $100,000 to provide free trips back in January 2014. And University Hospitals just signed on as the sponsor of Cleveland’s bikeshare system. There is a precedent here.
  4. What steps have Flats employers taken in the past to promote public transit usage among their patrons and employees? What about to promote public transit funding and support among the general public? Do they participate in RTA’s Commuter Advantage program? Do they subsidize transit passes? Seeing them actually stick their necks out for transit would mean a lot more, particularly in light of the sea of surface parking lots that they’ve constructed in the area.

Answering these lingering questions would not have mollified both sides, but it may have given us the information we needed to make a more informed opinion.

[Insert obligatory line blaming the State of Ohio for not funding transit.]

Ozone levels have fallen dramatically, though you probably didn’t notice

cleveland skyline smog
cleveland skyline smog

Smog obscures the Cleveland skyline in this picture from July 20, 1973 (courtesy of the National Archives/U.S. EPA).


As someone who has spent most of his life in the city of Cleveland and bikes to work across the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge on a daily basis, I feel like I have a close, personal relationship with air pollution here.

I can tell when the steel mills and other factories in the Industrial Flats are releasing more sulfur dioxide (SO2) than normal from the distinctive odor of rotten eggs. I have entirely too much experience trying to avoid the clouds of diesel particulate matter as they belch forth from GCRTA’s older buses. I have inhaled more than my fair share of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) from passing vehicles.

The dynamics of ground-level ozone

But one common urban pollutant that I cannot and will never be able to smell or see or taste is ground-level ozone. It is completely colorless and odorless. The only way you can notice ozone is from afar, as it helps obscure your view of cities on particularly hazy days. But even then, you can’t really “see” it, as the ozone is just one component of the smog that envelops cities.

Ozone is a sneaky little bastard. It forms above us in the troposphere, travels dozens to hundreds of miles downwind, and then silently works its way into our airways. Only when you have already inhaled it can you possibly begin to notice ozone, as it irritates and inflames tissue in your nose and lungs.

Fortunately, thanks largely to regulations put in place over the past several years by the U.S. EPA, ozone levels have been falling consistently around the country. According to EPA, ozone declined by one-third nationwide, from 1980 to 2014.

But while long-term ozone concentrations certainly affect public health, environmental and public health officials typically focus more on the impacts of spikes in the pollutant over the shorter term. The short-term health effects of rising ozone levels can be significant. According to a landmark 2004 study from Michelle Bell and colleagues, when ozone increases by 10 parts per billion (ppb), mortality rates in Cleveland increase by roughly 1% during the next week. These daily spikes also lead to additional hospitalizations, missed school days, and missed workdays due to asthma and other respiratory conditions.

For these reasons, U.S. EPA requires local officials to monitor ozone and advise the public when they project that ambient levels are expected to exceed 70 ppb. Unfortunately, the Cleveland area has already experienced three days this year on which concentrations exceed 70 ppb. Two of these occurred last week, given that air temperatures increased significantly as high pressure moved into the region.

Yet, as NASA pointed out recently, reductions in emissions of ozone precursors – namely nitric oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – have gone a long way towards limiting the number of exceedance days over the past few years. Without these emissions reductions, Cleveland would have experienced roughly 4-5 more exceedance days in 2011 than we actually did, as the map below shows.

ozone exceedance days avoided 2011

Ozone exceedance days avoided in 2011 as a result of emissions reductions over the past decade (courtesy of NASA).

The benefits of this reduction are tangible, in both blood and treasure. But, at a more basic level, it provides greater peace of mind for all of us. Parents no longer have to worry as much about keeping their children indoors to protect them from pollution. Those of us with asthma don’t have to think about altering our behavior to spend less time outside.

Despite the hype, ozone levels are declining

Given the recent media coverage about worsening air quality worldwide, the fact that ozone levels continue to decline throughout most of the U.S. may come as something of a surprise. I mean, the American Lung Association just gave Cleveland an F for air quality a month ago. But, when you actually get beyond the sensationalized headlines and dig into the data, you’ll find that our air is cleaner than it is has ever been, and it is far cleaner than it was even a decade ago.

Now, none of this should be taken to mean that we can get complacent or that air quality is no longer a pressing challenge; nothing could be further from the truth. I would venture that there are relatively few people more concerned about or aware of air quality issues in this region than I, but I am also among the first to acknowledge the progress we have made and continue to make. But don’t take my word for it. Let’s actually look at the data.

Perhaps the easiest way to chart changes in ozone, over time, would be to look at the average daily ozone levels for the region. In order to do so, I collected data on daily ambient ozone concentrations for Northeast Ohio from 2005-2015 from EPA’s Air Quality System (AQS). This is charted below.

mean annual o3 level 2005-2015

Mean daily ozone levels in Northeast Ohio from 2005-2015.

While there appears to be a fairly small – but steady – decline since 2005, this is not necessarily the most valuable metric to use. First, because ozone  is a secondary pollutant, it is highly dependent upon weather conditions to form. This means that ozone levels can vary dramatically from one day to another, based upon ambient temperatures or whether or not it is raining. Secondly, there is relatively little reliable science on the health impacts of ozone at levels below 50 ppb.

The number of ozone exceedance days has fallen considerably

A more accurate way to account for changes in ozone levels is to examine the number of exceedance days per year. But, because EPA continues to update the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) to reflect changes in science, this does not give us a true apples-to-apples comparison. It wouldn’t be accurate, for example, to claim that air quality did not improve from 2000 to 2015 if a city had 10 exceedance days in each year, given that the NAAQS was 85 ppb during the former year and 75 ppb during the latter.

Because there are several ozone monitors operating in the region, I took the highest daily ozone value from among these monitors and used that as the regional value for a given day. To get a true comparison, I counted day as an exceedance if at least one monitor within the 8-county region registered a value of 71 ppb or more, given that the current NAAQS is 70 ppb.

annual o3 exceedance days 2005-2015

Number of ozone exceedance days per year in Northeast Ohio from 2005-2015, using a 70 ppb cutoff.

As you can see, there has been a nearly precipitous decline in the number of exceedance days over the past decade. While there is some interannual variation, based upon weather (e.g. 2012), the overall trend is undeniable. While the region averaged 43.3 exceedance days per year from 2005-2007, that number fell to just 7 per year from 2013-2015.

Another way to frame changes in ozone levels is to consider the average ozone concentration within the region on a given exceedance day. It may be more harmful for public health to have 10 exceedances with an average concentration of 80 ppb than to have 15 exceedances that average 71 ppb. Fortunately, this metric has also declined significantly since 2005. While the data are fairly noisy, they also demonstrate a strong overlap with the number of exceedance days per year. In other words, during years when we have more exceedances, ozone levels on those days tend to be higher.

mean annual o3 exceedance level 2005-2015

Mean annual ozone exceedance level per year from 2000-2015.

Clearly, by basically any measure, ozone levels have fallen considerably in the region over the past several years, which has directly enhanced public health and well being. In a 2013 study, EPA scientists Neal Fann and David Risely estimated the nationwide public health benefits due to decreases in ozone concentrations from 2000 to 2007. During this period, a 3.5 ppb decrease in national ozone levels prevented between 880 and 4,100 premature deaths. Northeast Ohio, in particular, benefited from this trend; Cuyahoga County avoided more than 30 premature deaths per year during this period, more than all but a handful of counties in the country.

But climate change threatens this trend

But, as I’ve noted before, climate change threatens to stymie this progress. Rising temperatures and changes in precipitation and wind patterns may create conditions more favorable to ozone formation in the future.  Based on a recent EPA report, ozone levels may spike by 1 to 5 ppb, depending on much surface temperatures increase. To account for this effect, I identified those days from 2005 to 2015 on which ozone concentrations peaked between 66 and 70 ppb. As the chart below illustrates, the number of exceedance days would have increased markedly during this period, if the temperature increases associated with climate change had already taken effect. On average, there would have been an additional 13.9 exceedance days per year, ranging from a low of 4 in 2009 to a high of 29 in 2006.

o3 exceedance days with & without climate change

The number of ozone exceedance days in Northeast Ohio from 2005-2015 before and after accounting for the impacts of climate change.

The system works, if you let it

Ultimately, these trends point to a clear conclusion – the air pollution control system in this country works. Donald Trump may want to ban the EPA, but – and this is shocking, I know – I’m going to go ahead and call bullshit on his claim that “we’ll be fine with the environment” afterwards. The clear improvement in air quality that we have seen in this country would not have been possible without the passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act Amendments or the creation of the EPA, which has enforced them. We are all the beneficiaries of the system that has been in place over the past four-plus decades.

But this progress is not a given. As we’ve seen, climate change – itself a product of air pollution – threatens to harm air quality in the long-term. If we get complacent or, worse yet, try to roll back these gains, we will all suffer. Ozone is a fickle and complicated bastard that can strike where and when you are not expecting it. Let’s not give it that chance.

How America’s anti-urban bias distorts infrastructure spending

portsmouth bypass construction
portsmouth bypass construction

Crews prepare embankments for the Portsmouth Bypass project (courtesy of Midwest Energy News).

The relative struggle for power between urban and rural areas is a defining feature of the American political system, one that dates back to the founding of the country. In the immediate aftermath of the Revolution, the two dominant political theories were the urban republicanism of Alexander Hamilton and the agrarian democracy of Thomas Jefferson.

Hamilton’s ideas and biography are en vogue again, but the Jeffersonian push for agrarian power was enshrined in the Constitution. During the Constitutional Convention, small states successfully imposed the Connecticut Compromise, which created a bicameral legislature that included an upper house where every state would have equal standing. Thanks to this compromise, Wyoming – a state with 586,000 people – has the same power in the Senate as California – a state with five cities larger than 500,000 people.

Legislative proportionment and Baker v. Carr

Although rural areas unquestionably have disproportionate power on the federal level, it’s even starker at the state level. For a variety of reasons, rural voters tend to hold sway in state legislatures. One driver behind this outcome is gerrymandering, as typically Republican-dominated statehouses can draw districts in such a way as to enhance the relative power of rural and suburban residents.

The situation was actually worse prior to 1962. In that year, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Baker v. Carr, ruling that states need to continually update their legislative districts based on decadal Census data. This ruling effectively enshrined the principle of “one person, one vote,” which helped to somewhat level the playing field between rural and urban voters. But the situation has not been remedied. As I’ve said before, life is still difficult for blue cities located in red states.

Anti-urban bias in infrastructure spending

Recently I came across a great quote on this issue:

Ohio has practiced a rural and suburban philosophy that ignores big central city problems because those who run the state win their positions by soliciting the solid backing of farmers and small town residents.

I think this sentence encapsulates the current relationship between Cleveland and the State of Ohio quite well. Except it’s not a contemporary quote. This is actually from a speech (start at 17:00 mark) that former Mayor Carl Stokes delivered at the City Club of Cleveland on July 24, 1970.

Stokes spoke at a time when the State of Ohio showed no inclination to support the City of Cleveland. One year before the Cuyahoga River infamously caught on fire (for the 13th time) in June 1969, Cleveland residents passed a $100 million bond issue to upgrade the city’s water and wastewater infrastructure. The bond issue was necessary, because – six years after Baker – the State of Ohio refused to finance the improvements.

This imbalance remains today. Ohio actually spends more state money on its rural transit program than its urban program, despite the fact that 78% of Ohioans live in urban areas.

ohio transit funding 2000-2014

Transit funding, by program, from the Ohio Department of Transportation from 2000-2014 (courtesy of ODOT).

The bias towards rural areas also remains when examining spending on social issues at the state level. How many red states refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, for instance? Here in Ohio, while Governor John Kasich loved to brag on the campaign trail how he did expand Medicaid, he never seemed to mention how he only expanded food stamp allocations for rural areas, not cities.

But it’s possible to alter these types of social spending decisions in the short term. Governors and legislatures can pull the policy levers to increase welfare or education financing much more readily than they can build a new transit line in cities.

So what is it about infrastructure that makes it harder to influence, over the short-term, than social spending? What accounts for this inertia?

The ‘persistence of highways’

In a recent working paper (PDF), Stanford political science professor Clayton Nall and PhD candidates Simon Ejdemyr and Zachary O’Keeffe examine this issue. The study examines how the anti-urban bias in legislative apportionment affected the distribution of public goods before Baker. It also questions to what extent the case remedied this issue. As a proxy for public goods, the study considers the provision of federal-aid highway funding.

The authors identify two key mechanisms that explain the “persistence of highways” and that make highway spending less responsive to political change than social spending.

First, infrastructure clearly carries a sense of permanence. While the food that SNAP benefits help families buy may be gone a day later, a new bridge or highway will be fixed in steel and concrete for decades. Politicians are suckers for groundbreakings and ribbon cutting ceremonies.

Once these structures are built, there is typically tremendous pressure to maintain them. This is true even if the road or bridge outlives its useful life or if the cost of maintaining it outweighs the benefits. Like everyone else, lawmakers are subject to the sunk cost fallacy, which leads us to falsely believe that we need to keep investing time and money into projects or tasks, simply so that we don’t lose the time and money we have already spent.

Secondly, building infrastrastructure creates policy feedback. In other words, the development of the federal highway system gave rise to new interest groups that benefited from their construction. Construction and engineering firms directly benefited by winning state and federal contracts.

New infrastructure also creates what the authors call spatial policy feedback. New highways alter development patterns, facilitating the growth of suburban and exurban areas. In turn, these new suburban populations form powerful interest groups. Their support for and dependence on these highways becomes a self-perpetuating political force.

The unique persistence of highways is an important issue, as the framework for the federal-aid highway system was laid before Baker and was, thus, inherently anti-urban. In the Federal Highway Act of 1944, Congress explicitly barred the use of federal funds to build roads in communities with more than 2,500 residents.

While Congress altered its funding formula in 1956, it allowed rural-dominated state legislatures to influence the allocation of highway funding for decades. According to the authors, “state legislative malapportionment would have compounded already biased federal policies that limited states’ freedom of action to develop their urban areas, while promoting the biases within state legislatures.”

So, did the Baker ruling make a difference?

To examine how anti-urban bias within the political system may have affected the allocation of highway spending, the authors developed two models.

First, they compare each county’s portion of total highway mileage to its share of the state’s population. They then account for each county’s representation within the state legislature using the Relative Representation Index (RRI); a county with more political representation than its population should justify will have a score above 1, and vice versa.

To study the impact of the Baker ruling, they compare results from 1934-1960 to those from 1970-present. Per their results,

We find that legislative representation had approximately the same effect on a county’s share of state highway construction, regardless of region and urbanism. Second, and more importantly, we find that pre-Baker malapportionment had a persistently significant effect on highway-mileage bias in the decades after Baker. We find that representation mattered, but that it was the timing of the representation—prior to the construction of most of the American highway network—that dictated the distribution of highway infrastructure for decades to come.

According to this model, from 1934-1960, a one standard deviation increase in a county’s RRI score increased its share of highway-mileage spending by 0.3 standard deviations. While this number has been halved since the Baker ruling, the effect remains.

Second, the researchers compared the relative impact of Baker on both highway and social spending from 1972-20002; to measure the latter, they used state spending on public welfare and education. In this model, counties with higher RRI scores continued to see higher levels of state highway funding after Baker, even as they received less funding for welfare and education.

The implications of this study are significant. We live in an era of budget cuts and austerity. But, in a lot of ways, this crisis is political. The Ohio legislature could not be bothered to allocate even $1 million more for public transit, even as the largest transit system in state, GCRTA, muddles through a $7 million budget deficit.

Yet, while Cleveland residents brace themselves for fare increases and service cuts, Ohio has no qualms about spending $1.2 billion on the Portsmouth Bypass, which serves no purpose other than to let drivers avoid a few traffic lights.

As Ejdemyr, Nall & O’Keeffe conclude,

The current plight of American infrastructure – widely described as a “national infrastructure deficit” – is not a universal phenomenon but represents a long-term legacy of legislative malapportionment and decisions about infrastructure made before cities had equal representation in state legislatures. The poor state of American infrastructure is not merely a result of overall underinvestment, but stems from a historical legacy of unequal treatment that left some areas (notably cities) with a host of social and economic problems, including underfunded road infrastructure.

In an era in which people seem to be rediscovering the value of our center cities, we cannot afford to keep recreating the mistakes of our predecessors. Remedying the anti-urban bias in infrastructure spending will not happen overnight, but it’s well past time that we start.

Throwback Thursday: Cleveland held its first bike parade 100 years ago

cleveland bike parade
cleveland bike parade

Cleveland’s first Critical Mass-type event was held 100 years ago tomorrow (courtesy of the Cleveland Office of Sustainability)

May is an important time for cycling, as it is National Bike Month.

Throughout the course of the month, there are a number of celebrations and events. Sunday, May 1 marked the annual kick-off of the National Bike Challenge. Yesterday was Bike to School Day. Friday, May 20 is Bike to Work Day. And, as I already told you, this week is Air Quality Awareness Week, in which we are encouraging people to try biking in order to improve local air quality.

Well, it just so happens that 100 years ago this week, the City of Cleveland also helds its first proto-Critical Mass event. The City Division of Recreation organized a massive “bike parade” to the historic League Park on the city’s east side. The event reported involved more than 700 people, which is about the size of our contemporary, monthly Critical Mass rides.

Anyways, I just thought this was a cool little piece of trivia for what the youths call “Throwback Thursday.”

Why we should account for air quality when planning bike lanes

critical mass
A rendering of the proposed Cleveland Midway, a network of protected cycle tracks that would run across the city (courtesy of Bike Cleveland).

A rendering of the proposed Cleveland Midway, a network of protected cycle tracks that would run across the city (courtesy of Bike Cleveland).

In a lot of ways, cyclists get a raw deal. We ride a 25-pound machine on the same roads as people driving 2,000-pound steel boxes at high rates of speed. We struggle to carve out a small piece of the road, even as we get buzzed by passing cars or get screamed at by furious drivers who could kill us at a moment’s notice. There’s no such thing as a fair fight between a bike and a car. If I get into a head on collision with a careless driver, I lose.

Transportation people define cyclists (along with pedestrians, children, the elderly, and the disabled) as “vulnerable road users.” We are the ones most at risk of getting injured, or worse, in a collision.

For the most part, cycling and transportation safety activists have worked to try and bridge the yawning gap in safety between drivers and vulnerable users. So we push to implement road diets, to install bike lanes, to lower speed limits, to educate drivers and cyclists alike about road etiquette. And we do all of this, rightly so, in the name of safety.

The positives – and negatives – of cycling

Part of the impetus behind the push for improving bike infrastructure is the myriad benefits associated with active transportation, which I laid out in detail in my last post.

We all know the advantages of expanding cycling. It reduces wear and tear on roads. It improves safety for all road users. It helps promote vibrant neighborhoods and may increase retail sales. It can fight obesity and enhance public health. And it reduces local air pollution and helps tackle climate change.

But there’s two sides to every coin. We know that individual cyclists take a real risk each time they venture onto the road, even as the rise in cycling enhances safety for all. Could this same dilemma be true for air pollution and public health? The evidence seems to say yes.

Cyclists and exposure to air pollution

On the one hand, cyclists help to improve both local and regional air quality, full stop. Bikes are emissions free and every mile spent cycling rather than driving keeps roughly one pound of carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere. The more people who move out of cars and onto bikes, the more we can mitigate transportation-related air pollution (TRAP) and reduce everyone’s exposure to its harmful effects.

it's a trap

Admiral Ackbar hates air pollution.

Yet, on the other hand, not every road user is exposed equally to TRAP. The specific characteristics of a vehicle can dramatically affect the levels of pollution that people riding in or on it can experience. We know, for example, that pollutants can concentrate inside of school buses, ensuring that children on board may be exposed to much higher levels of particulate matter and air toxics than they would otherwise. The same is true for heavy-duty truck drivers.

When it comes to drivers, however, that 2,000-pound steel box puts you at a significant advantage. Unlike cyclists, who have no air exchange buffer, drivers can roll up their windows and turn on recirculated air, lessening their personal exposure to TRAP, even as they produce it.

Multiple studies back this up. In a recent paper (paywall), Carlos Ramos, Humbert Wolterbeek, and Susana Almeida compared the exposure of cyclists and drivers to various air pollutants, using samples from Lisbon, Portugal. Though the authors found that drivers actually inhale five time as much carbon monoxide (CO) and more than twice as much CO2 as cyclists, respectively, the same was not true for other, more harmful pollutants. Cyclists were exposed to 30% higher concentrations particle pollution and ground-level ozone, on average.

As Ramos, Wolterbeek, and Almeida note, drivers tend to face higher concentrations of primary pollutants, like CO, because they remain in direct proximity to the pollutant source. Cyclists, in contrast, are able to limit their exposure to primary pollutants, but they breathe in much higher levels of secondary pollutants (ozone, PM2.5).

Exposure to pollution isn’t the whole story

It would be really consider convenient to end the discussion here and wash our hands of this whole issue. Drivers are exposed to higher levels of one type of pollution, while cyclists face higher levels of another.

But, like most things, this isn’t as simple as it can seem on the surface. The health effects of air pollution isn’t simply a product of pollution levels. Rather, it’s a function of concentration, length of exposure, extant health status (e.g. is the person elderly or asthmatic), respiratory rate, and inhalation route (nose or mouth).

When you account for these factors, the deck becomes decisively stacked against cyclists. Because cyclists spend more time on the road (due to their slower speeds) and breathe more heavily, they inhale higher levels of pollution in nearly every instance.

How cyclists can reduce their exposure to pollution

Now, there are steps that cyclists can take, at least in theory, to reduce their exposure to TRAP. Much like a cyclist can reduce his/her chances of being hit by using off-street paths or side streets, s/he can alter the amount of pollution inhaled by changing routes.

A group of scientists, headed up by Nathan Good from Colorado State University, explored this issue in a study published last fall. They selected a group of 8 commuters (4 bike, 4 car) in Fort Collins and equipped each of them with portable air monitors to document their levels of exposure along their daily commutes.

They found that, on average, cyclists were exposed to 18% more black carbon (a particular harmful component of TRAP) and 25% more PM2.5. Because cyclists spent more time commuting, the actually inhaled 92% more black carbon and 96% more PM2.5.

But Good et al. also found that cyclists could reduce these numbers by shifting to alternate, lower trafficked routes. Cyclists who used these roads less traveled actually took nearly one-quarter less black carbon.

critical mass

Cleveland Critical Mass in July 2015 as seen from my bike.

That said, there are some real issue with this study’s implications. Some people (including me) don’t have a viable, less trafficked route we can follow to work. Additionally, this approach shifts the responsibility for avoiding pollution intake from the public sector (policy makers, urban planners) to the individual cyclist. That’s a crappy way of doing things.

Including air pollution when planning bike lanes

Fortunately, additional research provides at least a partial answer.

In a 2014 study, Piers MacNaughton and colleagues looked at (paywall) how different types of bike routes affected TRAP intake among cyclists in Boston. They compared pollution levels along bike paths (those separated from vehicular traffic) and on-road bike lanes.

Unsurprisingly, the authors found that cyclists experienced significantly lower levels of air pollution while using off-road bike paths. But set that aside for now.

The important findings of this study are related to particular components of bike infrastructure. MacNaughton et al. found that two bike lane variables – vegetative cover and the number of intersections – significantly affect TRAP intake among cyclists.

Reducing the number of intersections a cyclist has to cross not only cuts his/her travel time, it also limits the number of idling vehicles s/he will face. And increasing the amount of vegetation between cars and cyclists can help slash pollution levels, as plants filter out a variety of air pollutants. According to the authors, a one unit increase in vegetative cover lowers black carbon and nitrogen dioxide levels by 3.4% and 11.6%, respectively.

As the authors conclude,

Cyclists can reduce their exposure to TRAP during their commute by using bike paths preferentially over bike lanes regardless of the potential increase of traffic along these routes. Based on these results and the relevant cyclist safety literature, urban planners should push for the development of bike paths instead of bike lanes whenever possible and should design bike paths with vegetation between the cyclists and the vehicle traffic.

Redefining the “vulnerable” in vulnerable road users

With all this in mind, the concept of “vulnerable road users” takes on a new meaning. Cyclists are not only at a greater risk of being injured or killed in a collision, we are also at a heightened risk of suffering the ill effects of TRAP.

Planners must start taking this into account. Bike infrastructure that may make sense from a safety standpoint may not hold up when we account for air pollution. And don’t get me started on vehicular cycling advocates. Cleveland’s decision to design bike lanes that buffer the curb already made no sense from a safety perspective. When you add air quality to the equation…?

Other projects seem to make more sense, in contrast. Both the Midway and the Eastside Greenway place vegetative buffers between cyclists and traffic. This feature provides a double dividend, as they would improve safety and help reduce pollution levels.

Ultimately, it’s time to broaden our horizons on bike infrastructure. Just as we shouldn’t expect indicidual cyclists to bear the risk of being run over to improve road safety, so too shouldn’t we expect cyclists to inhale poison so the rest of us can breathe cleaner air. Let’s start accounting for air pollution exposure and intake when planning bike lanes.

Increasing mode shift is a great tool for improving air quality, public health

bike ferdinand
bike ferdinand

My trusty 2012 Trek FX 7.3, Ferdinand. Yes, like Magellan.

If it’s the first week of May, that can only mean one thing! No, not May Day. No, not Star Wars Day. No, not Cinco de Mayo. No, not Mother’s Day. Look, clearly you’re not going to get this on your own.

That’s right – it’s Air Quality Awareness Week. The U.S. EPA has designated this year’s theme as “Show How You Care About The Air.” EPA and various other government entities that work on air quality, including NOACA, are encouraging people to take a few simple steps throughout the course of the week that can have a positive, tangible impact on air quality.

One of these actions is changing your commute mode. The overwhelming majority of Americans (76.4% in 2013, to be exact) drive alone to work. Here in Northeast Ohio, that number is significantly higher, with values ranging from 79.9% in Cuyahoga County to 87.9% in Lake County. If you total the five counties in the NOACA region, 772,262 of the 938,244 workers over the age of 16 – 82.3% – drive alone to work. Given that transportation accounts for a significant portion of key pollutants in the region – 50% of nitric oxides (NOx) and 15% of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) – reducing the share of single-occupancy vehicles (SOV) on the region’s roads has the potential to improve air quality.

The question becomes by how much. While active transportation undoubtedly holds the potential to cut mobile emissions, some research suggests its immediate impact is somewhat limited. As I’ve shown, increasing overall fuel economy can do more to mitigate climate change than land use planning.

Moreover, research from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) shows that bike and pedestrian are not the most cost-effective way to cut emissions. According to the agency’s analysis of projects funded through the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program (CMAQ), active transportation lowers emissions far less, per dollar spent, than diesel vehicle retrofits, truck stop electrification, or idle reduction projects. This may help to explain why bicycle and pedestrian projects accounted for just 7% of CMAQ funding in FY2013.

Short trips and cold starts

On the aggregate, it’s likely true that, at least in the short-term, retrofitting diesel engines in heavy-duty vehicles or reducing the amount of fuel that truck drivers use overnight may be a more effective way to cut emissions. But personal vehicles account for a much larger share of mobile emissions, and a significant share of these emissions come from short trips.

According to the 2009 National Household Transportation Survey (NHTS), the median distance of a light-duty vehicle trip in the U.S. was just four miles; nearly half of all personal trips (43.4%) were less than 3.2 miles. These short trips account for an outsized share of vehicle emissions due the issue of cold starts.

A cold start occurs when both the car engine and its catalytic converter have cooled to within 10℉ of the ambient air temperature. In order for an engine to operate at peak efficiency, it needs to warm to roughly 140℉. Until it reaches this point, the vehicle will fail to fully combust gasoline, ensuring that it releases emissions at a higher rate.

One recent study (PDF) notes that cold engines can emit four times as many hydrocarbons, three times as much carbon monoxide (CO), and twice as much NOas a warm engine. All told, the authors conclude that excess emissions attributable to cold starts account for 10-30% of total mobile emissions.

The benefits of mode shift on a national scale

Given these facts, it appears that shifting travel mode for short trips could go a long way to improving air quality. Additional research backs up this hypothesis.

In a 2010 article (paywall) in the journal Transportation Research Part D, Audrey de Nazelle and her colleagues examined the benefits of shifting short vehicle trips to active transportation. While their travel data were older (they used the 1995 NHTS), they found that 62.5% of all trips less than 0.5 miles occur in cars. This share that climbs to 87.1% for 0.5 to 1-mile trips, 92.2% for 1- to 2-mile trips, and 94.3% for 2- to 3-mile trips.

The authors examined the effects of shifting 35-70% of short social trips and 15-45% of commutes, respectively, from driving to active transportation. Nationwide, this mode shift would cut daily VOC emissions by 30-70 tons, CO emissions by 400-900 tons, and NOx emissions by 15-35 tons. It would also reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by 0.8-1.8%, cutting greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) by 20,000-46,000 tons per day. They compared these results to emissions reductions from existing CMAQ projects, finding that promoting widespread mode shift for short trips could lead to emissions reductions that were “orders of magnitude greater.”

How can mode shift improve air quality and public health in Cleveland?

But that study looks at the U.S. as a whole. I often hear people from people that the weather in Northeast Ohio is too harsh, making it impossible to walk or bike for 6-9 months a year. The deck is also stacked heavily towards driving in this region, as our SOV mode share attests. Are national estimates really applicable here? Surely things are different here than in Portland or Austin or San Diego.

Fortunately, a group of researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison already considered this issue. In a 2012 study, they analyzed the impact of replacing half of all vehicle trips less than four kilometers (2.4 miles) with biking in the 11 largest metropolitan areas in the Midwest, including Cleveland. And they assumed this mode shift would only occur during cycling season, which they defined as April-October.

The authors estimated that eliminating these short car trips would slash residential vehicle use in these cities by one-fifth. This outcome would reduce the frequency of cold starts from 59.9% to 21.9% in urban Census tracts and from 55.6% to 20.3% in suburban tracts. Across the entire study area, PM2.5 concentrations would fall by 1-2%, while NOx and VOC levels would fall by 5-12% and 10-25, respectively.

Based on their findings,

Eliminating short car trips and replacing 50% of them by bicycle would result in mortality declines of approximately 1,295 deaths per year, including 608 fewer deaths due to improved air quality and 687 fewer deaths due to increased physical activity…We estimate that the combined benefit from improved air quality and physical fitness for the region would exceed $8.7 billion/year, which is equivalent to about 2.5% of the total cost of health care for the five midwestern states in the present study.

Here in Cleveland, PM2.5 values would fall by 0.05 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3), preventing 53 premature deaths, 184 asthma attacks, and 1,405 lost workdays per year. The additional physical activity would save another 42 lives per year, increasing the total benefits to $664 million annually.

And these numbers don’t account for the health benefits of increased physical activity. That prevents another 687 premature deaths and provides $3.8 billion in total benefits each year. This mode shift would further reduce GHG emissions by 3.9 billion pounds.

Clearly, the air quality benefits cities can obtain by promoting mode shift for short trips are significant. While mode shift, on its own, cannot bring every city into attainment for air quality standards or halt climate change, it is an important component of a comprehensive approach to both issues. Increasing the mode share of active transportation can produce additional dividends, as it benefits public health, enhances the livability of neighborhoods, improves safety for all road users, and just generally elevates the quality of life in communities around the country.

So show you care about air quality this week and take shorter trips on foot or by bike. Even if the weather isn’t perfect, it will be well worth it.

Go hug a tree. You just might live longer.

edgewater willow tree
edgewater willow tree

The iconic willow tree at Edgewater Park (courtesy of Francis Angelone).

Once upon a time, Cleveland was the Forest City. When Moses Cleaveland arrived to survey Connecticut’s Western Reserve in 1796, the area was heavily forested. It was said that a squirrel could travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River without ever touching the ground.

These days, only the moniker remains. We still have Forest City Enterprises, Forest City Brewery, Forest City Portage, etc. The trees? Not so much.

According to Cuyahoga County’s Urban Tree Canopy Assessment, just 19.2% of the city remains forested. Nearly all of the trees that existed during Cleaveland’s trip to the city that (largely) bears his name are gone today. In 1946, city officials identified 150 trees that likely existed in 1796. When the city updated this inventory in 1975, just 92 remained; of these, only 15 still had the plaques that were installed in 1946.

cuyahoga county tree canopy by community

The existing tree canopy, by community, in Cuyahoga County (courtesy of Cuyahoga County Planning Commission).

Only two of Cuyahoga County’s 59 communities have less tree cover than Cleveland, and the city lags behind comparable cities, including Cincinnati (38%) and Pittsburgh (40%). According to projections, unless Cleveland reverses this trend, its tree canopy will fall to just 14% by 2040. This would represent a loss of 97 acres of urban forest annually over the next 25 years.

When you consider some of Cleveland’s pressing challenges – a 56% child poverty rate, violent crime, population loss – the number of trees within city limits may not seem like a big deal. But we cannot consider the city’s environmental challenges as distinct from its general urban challenges; they are intrinsically connected. Our tremendous urban struggles exacerbate our environmental issues, including tree cover, and these environmental issues subsequently compound these broader issues.

Cleveland’s trees are terrific

When I think about trees, my mind immediately goes to that strangely catchy 1970s commercial from the National Arbor Day Foundation:

And it’s true, trees are terrific. In fact, they’re freaking incredible. But, as the singing cardinal in that commercial indicates, sometimes we take for granted the best things ever planted.

For many Clevelanders, trees may seem like more of a hassle than they’re worth. They produce tons of leaves, fruit, and sap that coats lawns and clogs gutters. They can damage sidewalks. Their roots may get into water and sewer pipes. They may fall in a storm and damage your property or that of a neighbor.

But the costs of trees only outweigh their benefits when we fail to account properly for the latter. Fortunately, the City of Cleveland and a number of partner organizations have placed  a price tag on the myriad benefits that our trees provide in The Cleveland Tree Plan (PDF), which was released last October.

Utilizing the U.S. Forest Service’s i-Tree model, the document estimates that the city’s trees provide more than $28 million in ecosystem services each year. Cleveland’s trees intercept 1.8 billion gallons of rainwater, which helps to mitigate our ongoing challenges with flash flooding. The trees shade homes, lowering energy costs by $3.5 million each year, as well as increase property values by $4.5 million. They also play an important role in mitigating climate change, as they remove 42,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year.

In the plan’s appendices (PDF), which you have to be a massive nerd like me to read, the Tree Plan actually lays out these ecosystem services by neighborhood. As the table below shows, there is a clear overlap between the extent of a neighborhood’s tree canopy and a host of other issues, including energy costs, asthma rates, and property values. The correlation between a neighborhood’s tree canopy and its urban heat island risk, for instance, is extremely strong (0.7609) and statistically significant (p < 0.0001).

cleveland tree benefits by neighborhood

The tree canopy and related statistics in each of Cleveland’s neighborhoods (courtesy of City of Cleveland).

Trees and mortality rates

On its surface, all of this makes sense. It’s fairly obviously that trees filter out air pollution, mitigate stormwater runoff, store carbon, beautify neighborhoods, and shade homes. But trees can do so much more, including extend your lifespan.

A recent study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives examines the relationship between “greenness,” a measure of vegetation cover (including trees) and mortality rates among a cohort of female nurses in the U.S. The researchers, led by up Dr. Peter James from the Harvard School of Public Health, utilized satellite images to measure the amount of vegetation within 250 and 1,250 meters of each woman’s residence. The 250-meter diameter represented the vegetation directly accessible from each woman’s home, while the 1,250-meter buffer accounted for vegetation within a 10- to 15-minute walk.

The authors considered four main pathways through which exposure to vegetation can affect mortality rates: physical activity, air pollution, social engagement, and mental health. They also controlled for a range of potentially confounding factors, including race/ethnicity, smoking status, socioeconomic status, region, and whether the person lived in a urban area.

According to James et al., higher levels of “greenness” significantly lowered mortality rates among the women in the study cohort.

Analyses showed a consistent relationship between higher greenness and decreased mortality that was robust to adjustment for individual- and area-level covariates. In fully adjusted models, those living in the highest quintile of cumulative average greenness in the 250m area around their home had a 12% lower rate of mortality compared to those in the lowest quintile. Results were consistent for the 1,250m radius, although the relationship was slightly attenuated.

Greater exposure to vegetation significantly reduced mortality rates from cancer, respiratory disease, and kidney disease by 13%, 35%, and 41%, respectively. Of the four pathways studied, the effects were greatest for mental health and social engagement, though “greenness” also reduced mortality related to fine particulate matter and a lack of physical activity.

Based on their research, James et al. conclude,

[T]hese findings suggest that green vegetation has a protective effect, and that policies to increase vegetation in both urban and rural areas may provide opportunities for physical activity, reduce harmful exposures, increase social engagement, and improve mental health. While the recognized benefits of planting vegetation include reducing wastewater loads, sequestering carbon, and mitigating the effects of climate change, evidence of an association between vegetation and lower mortality rates suggests a potential co-benefit to improve health, presenting planners, landscape architects, and policy-makers with an actionable tool to grow healthier places.

Clearly, city officials should work to expand urban tree canopies in order to mitigate the myriad social, environmental, and health issues that plague cities like Cleveland. Fortunately, Cleveland has taken the first step on this road with the release and adoption of its tree plan. Hopefully we can work together to expand the city’s tree canopy in order to tap into the numerous benefits that trees provide.

Maybe the next time you look out your window at your tree lawn, you will see the tree standing there in a different light. It’s time we appreciate and better care for our trees in Cleveland. They just might extend your life.

Don’t believe the lies – Ohio can’t afford to extend the freeze on clean energy

students protesting against sb 310
students protesting against sb 310

Students protesting against SB 310 in front of the Ohio Statehouse on May 14, 2014 (courtesy of Ohio Beyond Coal).

I wrote my first post on SB 310, the legislation that froze for two years Ohio’s renewable energy and energy efficiency portfolio standards, all the way back on March 31, 2014. That was the day that Senator Troy Balderson (R-Zainesville) introduced the bill to the Senate Public Utilities Committee.

Since that point, I have written at least 14 other posts that touch on this abysmal legislation in one way or another. Given that we’re now well into 2016, the final year of the freeze, I’d like nothing more than to see out this reprieve and forget this whole shameful episode ever happened.

But, this isn’t to be, perhaps because God hates Cleveland and all of us who live here.

One of the elements of SB 310 was the creation of the Energy Mandates Study Committee, a 12-member panel composed of lawmakers from both houses of the legislature. It’s specified task should give you a pretty good idea of its intended outcome (emphasis mine):

Section 3. It is the intent of the General Assembly to ensure that customers in Ohio have access to affordable energy. It is the intent of the General Assembly to incorporate as many forms of inexpensive, reliable energy sources in the state of Ohio as possible. It is also the intent of the General Assembly to get a better understanding of how energy mandates impact jobs and the economy in Ohio and to minimize government mandates. Because the energy mandates in current law may be unrealistic and unattainable, it is the intent of the General Assembly to review all energy resources as part of its efforts to address energy pricing issues.

Therefore, it is the intent of the General Assembly to enact legislation in the future, after taking into account the recommendations of the Energy Mandates Study Committee, that will reduce the mandates in sections 4928.64 and 4928.66 of the Revised Code and provide greater transparency to electric customers on the costs of future energy mandates, if there are to be any.

Naturally, when the group released its biased cost analysis (PDF) of the energy standards last fall (and I say cost analysis, because it’s kind of hard to do a cost-benefit analysis when you refuse to consider benefits), the GOP-dominated panel called for extending the freeze indefinitely:

Until the US EPA provides greater clarity on the operation of the [Clean Power Plan], and until litigation is resolved, the Study Committee feels compelled to extend Ohio’s freeze of the Mandates.

Interestingly, Governor John Kasich, who changes his tune on clean energy everytime he opens his mouth, took a brief time out from his quixotic presidential campaign to state that he opposed this idea. And so that’s where things sat for seven months. Nobody showed their hand, at least publicly, and we plodded along towards the end of the freeze.

Then, on Wednesday, I was greeted with this headline in the Columbus Dispatch: “Bill continuing ‘freeze’ on clean energy expected soon.”

It seems our old friend Sen. Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati) is acting on Study Committee’s recommendations and proposing a three-year extension of the freeze. Senate President Keith Faber (R-Celina) informed the Dispatch that he supports the idea.

Here is my official reaction to this proposal:

computer rage

To be honest, I don’t even want to write about this any more. People have already raised just about every argument as to why SB 310 (and any continuation of it) is terrible public policy. We’ve already explained how energy efficiency is the cheapest source of electricity in Ohio; how renewables are driving down energy bills and increasing grid resilience; how clean energy is creating thousands of good paying jobs for Ohioans; how the energy standards have saved ratepayers $2-4 for every $1 invested. None of it has mattered.

So let’s just take a look at the real impact of this bill on the people of Ohio. Maintaining the status quo on electricity generation in this state will have real, tangible impacts on public health and quality of life, even if fossil fuel boosters would prefer to ignore this.

Shortly after the Study Committee released its cost analysis, a coalition of environmental groups released the heretofore nonexistent benefits analysis. Their study examines the impacts of restoring the state’s clean energy standards in 2017 and allowing them to continue through 2029. Though the Study Committee recommended an indefinite suspension of the standards, this outcome seems unlikely in light of Gov. Kasich’s professed opposition. This is particularly the case, given that Sen. Seitz, the most vocal and insufferable opponent of the standards, is only calling for a three-year extension of this moratorium.

Accordingly, I will only outline the foregone public health benefits of this proposal, which would stretch from 2017-2019. (I will just ignore, for a moment, the fact that the deadline for states to submit their CPP compliance plans to the EPA falls on September 6, 2018, smack dab in the middle of this extended freeze.) This benefits analysis assumes that each megawatt hour (MWh) of renewable energy generation/energy efficiency installed in Ohio will displace either 0.4 or 0.6 MWh of coal-fired power, with natural gas generation making up the difference.

While the benefits of swapping fossil fuels for renewables and efficiency compound over time, they are still significant in the short-term. Restoring the clean energy standards would reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the state by roughly 12.5 million tons per year from 2017 to 2019. Moreover, cutting Ohio’s reliance on coal-fired power will also slash harmful air pollutants, including fine particulate matter (PM2.5).

co2 emissions with & without sb 221

CO2 emissions in Ohio from 2017-2029, with and without the state’s clean energy standards (courtesy of NRDC).

In 2017 alone, this reduction in PM2.5 levels would prevent 16,900 lost work days, 2,230 asthma attacks, 100 hospital admissions, and 230 nonfatal heart attacks. It would also prevent anywhere from 140 to 370 premature deaths. Adding in 2018 and 2019, these numbers increase to a total of 480 to 1,240 premature deaths, 350 hospital admissions, 7,540 asthma attacks, 760 nonfatal heart attacks, and 57,110 lost work days avoided.

These benefits are truly staggering.  Let’s calculate the economic benefits of the premature deaths prevented. Using the EPA’s statistical value of a human life, which is $9.1 million, we get a total social benefit of anywhere from $4.37 billion to $11.28 billion by 2019. And, again, I’m only talking about the next three years. Extending this out to 2029, as this study does, increases the number of avoided deaths to 2,820, which has a total value of $25.66 billion.

The Ohio GOP may want you to believe that the state’s clean energy standards are raising energy costs, crippling businesses, and killing jobs, but they’re doing precisely the opposite. They can try to obfuscate this by leaving the benefits out of cost-benefit analyses and by including line items on your electric bill showing the supposed costs of complying with these standards.

But when you account for the true costs of fossil fuels in this state, in both blood and treasure, you quickly come to the conclusion that we cannot afford not to implement these standards. So end the damn freeze already.