On LGBT issues, Cleveland needs to get its house in order first

gay games cleveland
gay games cleveland

Downtown Cleveland decked out in rainbow lights after the Opening Ceremonies of the 2014 Gay Games.

Last week, PayPal announced it was scrapping plans to expand its operations in North Carolina. The company’s decision to call off its $3.6 million expansion in Charlotte, which would have created 400 jobs, came in reaction to a despicable (and almost certainly unconstitutional) law that Republican Governor Pat McCrory signed into law on March 23.

The bill, which bars municipalities from extending non-discrimination protections to LGBT individuals, particularly targets transgender residents by requiring that they use the bathroom that corresponds to the sex listed on their birth certificates.

While Gov. McCrory sought to tamp down some of the controversy this week by issuing an Executive Order “clarifying” the bill, it amounts to little more than putting lipstick on this proverbial pig. As David Graham of The Atlantic notes, all public buildings will still enforce the draconian bathroom restrictions on transgender individuals, and the state still precludes any effort to prohibit anti-LGBT discrimination by private entities.

PayPal was just the latest in a series of groups that decided to pull out of North Carolina in the aftermath to this law. Deutsche Bank froze plans to hire 250 people in the state, and entertainers including Bruce Springsteen cancelled their performances.

All of this gets to a larger debate about the impacts of these types of boycotts. There is no doubt that applying economic and political pressure on states in response to such acts of blatant discrimination is an important tool – one that has worked on a number of occasions.

These sorts of boycotts can also have unintended consequences. For one, they may drive supporters of these bills to simply dig in their heels against outside pressure. More importantly, they may harm innocent people living within these states (including LGBT individuals) who oppose such laws. Blue cities, like Charlotte and Raleigh, already chafe under the control of GOP-dominated state legislatures. Economic boycotts of this sort might punish them further for policies they ardently oppose.

This should be readily apparent to those of us in Cleveland, a deep blue city stuck in an (artificially) bright red state.

But the tone deaf political and business leaders of Northeast Ohio completely missed this point. Following PayPal’s announcement, a group of leaders, including Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish, sent a self-congratulatory letter to CEO Daniel Schulman. In the letter, Budish et al. commend Schulman and his company for their progressive values, noting that “the City of Cleveland shares those same values.”

The letter highlights the fact that Cleveland is, in many ways, quite progressive on LGBT equality. Both the City and Cuyahoga County governments extended benefits to same-sex couples prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. The administration flies the pride flag above City Hall each year during Pride Week. And, of course, we hosted the 2014 Gay Games, which I helped plan and execute.

pride flag cleveland

The pride flag flies above Cleveland City Hall in June 2014.

But, in their haste to sell the Cleveland Renaissance narrative, Budish et al. end up coming off as too cute by half.

The authors completely ignore a number of important details. First, Republicans rammed this legislation through the North Carolina legislature as a direct response to a law passed by Charlotte’s City Council. That bill extended nondiscrimination protection to LGBT residents and required that all public and private entities allow transgender people to use the bathroom that matches their gender identities. PayPal is not leaving Charlotte because the city does not “share its values,” but because state leaders went off the deep end to legislate against those values.

Second, Budish et al. conveniently ignore that Cleveland City Council failed to pass exactly this same type of legislation last year. While Charlotte leaders stood up for their constituents, transgender Clevelanders had to listen as members of Council and the local media evoked the bullshit specter of transgender predators invading bathrooms around the city. As a bill opponent said, with a straight face, that “the most discriminated against group of people in this country…is not transgender people or gay people, it is people of faith.” As Plain Dealer editorial board members claimed allowing them to use the bathroom could “create a fertile environment for predators to strike.”

But the reality that transgender Americans are nearly twice as likely to be the victims of a sexual violence as cisgender Americans did not win the day. The fact that three transgender women were murdered in this city in less than a year did was not enough. No, the hatemongers peddling their lies on the pages of the PD made sure the bill never even got a vote.

Third, unlike North Carolina, the State of Ohio has no protections in place for LGBT residents. A gay person can still be legally fired for being gay; a lesbian can still legally be evicted for being a lesbian. In the wake of Gov. McCrory’s Executive Order, North Carolina is now more progressive than Ohio on this front, for government employees at least.

Moreover, the only way for a transgender person to guarantee access to services and accommodations that match their gender identity in states like Ohio and North Carolina is for them to go through the absurdly arduous process of getting a new birth certificate issued. Except, you cannot actually do that in Ohio at all, because this is one of just three states that refuses to issue updated birth certificates to transgender residents.

There is no question that Cleveland is a fairly welcoming place, regardless of one’s gender identity or sexual orientation. The week of the Gay Games was an incredible experience specifically because of the way that Clevelanders graciously welcomed LGBT people from around the world with open arms. I will never forget seeing a Cleveland police cruiser with a rainbow flag bumper sticker parked outside of the Convention Center.

But none of this does away with the truth that we still have an awful lot to do in order to ensure that LGBT Clevelanders are guaranteed their equal rights. I just wish that our leaders would spend more time working on this and less time patting themselves on the back.

Cincinnati is using parking revenue to fund transit. Why can’t Cleveland?

cincinnati streetcar
cincinnati streetcar

The Cincinnati Streetcar takes a test run in November 2015 (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

In my last post on using parking taxes to fund transit in Cleveland, I exclusively focused on private, off-street parking lots, largely due to space and for the sake of a coherent argument. Unfortunately, this meant that I left out the other side of the equation – how to properly manage public parking lots in response.

One of the potential consequences of increasing private parking fees is to increase the relative demand for public parking lots and on-street parking. While there is a long-standing tradition of having the public sector provide certain services at a lower cost than their private sector counterparts (e.g. electricity), the social costs of ubiquitous, cheap (or free) parking are so substantial as to overwhelm its potential benefits.

Accordingly, the first step towards instituting the parking tax policy I proposed is for the agencies that own and operate public parking lots and meters to raise their prices to market rates. Not only does this mitigate the risk that people will simply move from more expensive private lots to cheaper public lots, it may also increase the odds that commercial parking lot operators will go along with this tax proposal. As Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute wrote (PDF), “Commercial operators tend to be more accepting of a parking tax if governments are already maximizing income from other parking-related revenue sources, such as meters and enforcement of parking regulations.”

Coincidentally, Cincinnati has done just this. As part of a plan to modernize its parking system last year, Cincinnati officials raised rates in the Over-the-Rhine district, extended hours for metered parking (including weekends), and stepped up enforcement. While Cleveland also raised its rates last year, the maximum hourly rate for parking meters is still half of Cincinnati’s ($1 compared to $2), and we do not charge on weekends. (This is where I break from Councilman Zach Reed on transportation policy.)

The other essential component of correcting parking policy in order to justify tax increases is to eliminate mandatory parking minimums. Because the imposition of excise taxes on parking lot area can generate a new source of revenue for local governments, this could give them a perverse incentive to actually increase the minimum parking requirements for private developers in order to capture additional funds. In order to address this, legislators need to eliminate mandatory parking minimums within their jurisdiction.

While Cincinnati officials have failed to do the latter – in fact, their minimum parking requirements continue to undermine development in the city – their decision to raise public parking prices has paid off. Yesterday, city officials announced that parking revenues will make up the single largest share of the FY2017 operating budget of the new Cincinnati Streetcar. Funds generated from parking fees will make up $2.2 million of the $4.2 million total budget. Clearly, Cleveland leaders don’t need to look to Australia or the United Kingdom for examples of cities funding transit on the back of parking, given that it’s happening just 250 miles south on I-71.

This approach – taxing a public bad (excess parking) to fund a public good (reliable public transit) – is at the heart of good public policy. It’s no different than taxing cigarette sales to fund smoking cessation and public health programs (not professional sports stadiums) or taxing carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants to fund clean energy. Cleveland should take the baton from Cincinnati and run with it.

Ohio won’t save GCRTA, so let’s tax parking to fund transit instead

rta healthline buses
rta healthline buses

RTA HealthLine buses in downtown Cleveland (courtesy of Cleveland.com).

One of the biggest stories in Northeast Ohio right now is the Greater Cleveland RTA’s budget shortfall. It’s probably because of the company I keep, but my Facebook and Twitter feeds have been inundated with posts, comments, and tweets about every new update and public meeting for the past several weeks.

It’s a big story. GCRTA has reported that, in order to balance its books, it needs to cut expenses by $7 million this year. CEO Joe Calabrese and his staff have proposed a suite of route cuts and fare increases to plug this hole. Options include raising the base fare from to $2.50 per ride from $2.25 currently, increasing paratransit fares to $3.50 from $2.25, and curtailing or eliminating bus service along 18 routes. Alternatively, the agency could maintain existing service and increase the normal fare to $2.75 per trip.

Rather than just approving some combination of these options, the GCRTA Board of Directors tabled this discussion at its December 2015 meeting, opting to hold a series of 15 public meetings around the county. The last of these hearings occurred on Wednesday, and the ball is now back in the Board’s hands.

If I had to wager, I would guess they’ll raise fares by $0.50 to minimize the service cuts. Keep in mind that Cleveland has already cut annual bus revenue miles by nearly 40% since 2006, the single largest decrease in the country, according to Jake Anbinder of the Transit Center. Given the nearly overwhelming opposition to some of these service cuts, making it that much harder to get around town seems pretty untenable.

In addition to hosting this litany of hearings, Mr. Calabrese testified before the Cleveland City Council Transportation on Wednesday. He came to distill the agency’s challenges, justify its plans, and hear feedback from the Committee members. For the most part, the tenor from the Council members was pretty standard – they all agreed GCRTA is in a tight spot, they opposed service cuts in their wards, and they pilloried the State of Ohio for not doing its part.

Enough ink has been spilled – including by me – on the sad state of public transit funding in this state, so I won’t belabor the issue. Suffice it to say, as I once did, that I’m not sure it would be possible for Ohio’s elected officials to care less about public transit if they tried. Hell, even if Ohio devoted every one of the $7.3 million it kicks in for public transit to GCRTA, that would barely be enough to paper over its budget hole. The state needs to fund transit, full stop.

We can’t depend on Ohio to fund transit

But, while I don’t like cutting service on the 81 to the Lakeview Terraces or raising paratransit fares, I found myself agreeing most with Councilman Zach Reed. It was strange. I rarely see eye-to-eye with Councilman Reed on transportation issues, but his comments were dead on. He called on local officials to disabuse themselves of the notion that Ohio is suddenly going to find religion on transit funding.

Instead, Councilman Reed broached a subject that most local officials have sidestepped – we need to increase local funding for transit. Currently, GCRTA gets around 60% of its funding from a 1% county sales tax assessed in 1970. But this tax generates far less revenue today than it did in 1970; population loss costs the agency nearly $68 million in funding each year. That could close this budget hole nearly 10 times over.

gcrta sales tax revenue

Sales tax revenue by year (courtesy of GCRTA).

Additionally, Councilman Reed was the only person to note another key detail – federal and state transit dollars come with strings attached, including the local match requirement. Local governments need to cough up 20% of the cost of a project in order to spend federal transit dollars. This issue has increasingly become a hurdle. According to ODOT’s transit needs study (see page 46 of PDF), the state is sitting on more than $21 million in transit funding that it cannot disperse due to a lack of local matching funds. We need more transit spending for Cuyahoga County from Cuyahoga County; there’s no way around it.

Granted, continually increasing taxes on a shrinking population to fill budget gaps is a recipe for disaster. But not all taxes are created equal. There are certain levers that officials can pull to help rectify social harms and raise funds at the same time. And since sprawl is among Cleveland’s most pressing issues, taxing land uses that promote it can be beneficial. So let’s tax parking to fund transit.

Cleveland already has a parking tax, but…

First, I’ll note that Cleveland already taxes parking.* In 1995, City Council approved an 8% sales tax on parking transactions in the central business district. This tax raises roughly $10-11 million per year for the City’s coffers. Or it, would if Council hadn’t passed this tax as part of its plan to finance a new Browns stadium. Cleveland doesn’t actually see a dime of this money, as it just goes to pay off debt from bonds issued for FirstEnergy Stadium. Argle bargle.

The easy way to raise funds for transit would be to simply raise this existing tax. Compared to other cities with this sort of tax, Cleveland’s is relatively low. New York City, Miami, and Los Angeles impose taxes of 18.5%, 20%, and 25%, respectively. Pittsburgh, which has impressively progressive transportation policies, imposes a 50% tax. Cleveland could, say, double its tax to 16% – raising $10 million per year for transit – and remain on par with other cities.

Unfortunately, despite its ubiquity, this tax is flawed. Because it’s assessed on reported transactions, parking lot operators have an incentive to underreport their sales, something that has occurred in Cleveland. Additionally, it can have the unintended consequence of reducing the supply of paid parking and increasing the supply of free parking in city centers.

According to a study (PDF) from the Victoria Transport Policy Institute (VTPI), “it makes urban centers relatively less competitive compared with suburban locations where parking is unpriced. In this way, commercial parking taxes can increase total parking subsidies and sprawl.” Not only are we wasting the revenues from our parking tax to subsidize a football stadium, the tax itself may be contributing to urban sprawl. Argle bargle.

Taxing parking lots by surface area instead

What other options exist? A number of cities outside of the US – chiefly in Australia and Canada – take a different approach. They levy a tax on the total area of surface parking lots or on the total number of parking spaces. In this way, the tax generates a double dividend; it produces tax revenue while also driving down the demand for parking and reducing congestion.

Following the advice of a study from Eran Feitelson and Orit Rotem, I propose that we implement a tax on the surface area of private parking lots. But this tax would be imposed based on the square footage of each lot at ground level; this would ensure that a surface parking lot like those blighting the Warehouse District would have the same tax burden as a 4-level parking deck with a comparable surface area on each level. Not only would this create revenue and cut into parking demand, it would also push developers towards parking decks, as the effective tax per parking spot falls with each additional level added.

Moreover, the supply of free parking in the region would decrease, as developers would now have a greater motivation to recoup tax expenditures by charging. There is a legitimate risk that hiking up parking taxes could push people away from downtown or other districts within Cleveland. Accordingly, this policy should be implemented at the county level. Doing so would increase the cost of developing in suburban and exurban areas, relative to the city center, because the latter has an existing supply of parking decks and underground lots.

Because this would be applied countywide, it would be essentially a commuter tax imposed on both county residents and those people who live outside but enter the county to work, go to school, shop, see a sporting event, etc. This would help to address the types of equity concerns we face when dealing with similar taxes, like the Sin Tax.

Coincidentally, ODOT actually explored the idea of levying an annual tax on parking spaces to fund transit all the way back in 1993. The agency estimated (see page 20 of PDF) that this sort of tax could generate $187.3 million per year. If we adjust for inflation, that would be equal to $307 million in 2016 dollars. If we conservatively assume that a tax in Cuyahoga County could generate 10% of this revenue, that would still equal roughly $30 million per year.

Excess parking is a scourge for urban areas. It consumes valuable land, encourages driving and sprawl, contributes to air pollution and climate change, increases surface runoff, and harms water quality. On a good day, GCRTA struggles to compete and keep its budget balanced. Parking makes this challenge that much harder. So let’s try to remedy our incentives and tax parking to fund transit.

 

*Credit to Cleveland real estate lawyer and part-time blogger Christian Carson, whose 2014 post helped put me onto this idea.

Actually, fuel economy standards are a great way to tackle carbon emissions

plug-in hybrid prius
plug-in hybrid prius

A Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid vehicle (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

It feels like it’s been ages since I wrote a post taking down something that someone else has written. I get the impression that is what people enjoy on the World Wide Web these days, plus it’s pretty fun to rip apart a person’s specious argument – using peer-reviewed literature and well-sourced facts, of course.

With that in mind, I feel somewhat obligated to address an op-ed I read in the Los Angeles Times on Monday from Salim Furth, a research fellow at the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation. In the piece, Furth argues that state and federal fuel economy standards are a poor policy tool for limiting mobile greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and that they unfairly harm low-income families. Instead, he calls for California state officials to focus their attention on land use reforms that would “allow denser, environmentally conscious construction” to “make residents less dependent on car.”

On the surface, this seems reasonable. I’ve written in the past about how promoting denser, infill development patterns in sprawling metro areas like Cleveland could go a long way towards improving air quality and limiting GHG emissions. To the extent that Furth is calling for these sorts of policies, we are probably on the same page.

Except, when you dig into his argument, it collapses like the proverbial house of cards. As the folks at Climate Nexus argued, “Instead of suggesting policy that would preserve more land to act as a carbon sink, Furth writes that California should instead relax the permitting process so that development is even easier.” And this is exactly what he argues. While it’s true that NIMBY-ism can inhibit the development of denser, multifamily housing (see: Washington, DC), it takes a certain amount of rhetorical gymnastics to assert that the fault lies with environmental regulations. I guess that’s what you get when dealing with stuff from Heritage.

Comparing fuel economy to land use planning

But none of this gets to the central thesis of Furth’s argument – that fuel economy standards are less effective tools for curbing GHG emissions than “streamlined” permitting and “more permissive zoning laws.” Why enforce regulations that cost the average family roughly $4,000 to only mitigate global climate change by a fraction of a percent?

Leaving aside the fact that Furth demands California repeal state fuel economy rules that even he admits were superseded by President Obama’s 2011 CAFE standards, does his main point hold water? Well, he never actually provides a shred of evidence to support his argument, for one. How can we know if the CAFE standards will cut GHG emissions less than land use reform if we don’t have numbers for the latter?

Fortunately, there exist a number of studies and reports that dig into the potential for land use reform to mitigate climate change. At the local level, several of these analyses have come from metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), which are federally-mandated agencies that conduct transportation and environmental planning activities for urban areas.

Back in 2008, California lawmakers passed SB 375, the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act, which requires every MPO in the state to develop a sustainable communities strategy (SCS) that outlines its approach to meeting its GHG emission reduction target. These targets are established by the California Air Resources Board (CARB). To what extent can land use planning by MPOs contribute to these these goals? And do the projected reductions in GHG emissions exceed those from fuel economy standards?

In a word, no. CARB estimated (PDF) in 2010 that regional transportation and land use policies can only account for one-sixth of the GHG reductions generated by federal CAFE and low-carbon fuel standards through 2020. That proportion will likely increase after 2020, as the full effects of those long-term policies are realized, but they still pale in comparison. Given that Furth is writing about California, you think he’d be aware of these data.

Evidence from outside California

Findings from MPOs in other states back up CARB. Washington, DC’s MPO found similar results (PDF). The region’s leaders set a goal of reducing GHGs 80% versus a 2005 business as usual (BAU) scenario by 2050. According to their analyses, enacting new land use and transportation policies at the metro level can only make up 3.3% of this 80%. Increasing CAFE standards to 99 could account for 30% of the reduction, however, making this approach 10 times more effective. While raising CAFE standards would likely lead to something of a rebound effect by making driving cheaper, the results are still impressive.

The Puget Sound Regional Council (PDF) – Seattle’s MPO – has also modeled the potential GHG savings from various policies. They found that more compact development and better pricing transportation could cut GHGs by 6% and 9% compared to BAU, respectively. Emissions control strategies, like stricter fuel economy standards and the electrification of the vehicle fleet, have the potential to cut GHG emissions by 25-43%, depending on how aggressive they are. Even in the more conservative scenario, these standards outperform land use controls. The benefits of land use policies take an outsized role in Seattle, as transportation accounts for two-thirds of the city’s total emissions, because it’s electric grid is so much cleaner than the national average. Accordingly, Seattle is the best case scenario for Furth’s argument, but it still falls short.

ghg savings from different scenarios

Potential GHG reductions from various policy instruments under different scenarios (courtesy of Puget Sound Regional Council).

 

And just to hammer my point home further, the Transportation Research Board (TRB) published a comprehensive report on this topic back in 2009. The authors modeled the impacts on GHG emissions from 2000 to 2030 and 2050 under two scenarios, which assumed that 25% and 75% of all new housing would be be built in compact development areas, respectively.

While scenario 1 only sees GHG emissions fall 1.3-1.7% by 2050, while scenario 2 bumps this number up to 8-11%. But, again, tightening CAFE standards wins the day. The study finds that adding aggressive fuel economy requirements to scenario 2 can increase the GHG reduction potential up to 39-51%. The report states, “In short, over the longer time frame (i.e. to 2050), the impacts of continuing improvements in fuel economy beyond 2020 on energy use and CO2 emissions significantly outstrip those from more compact development.”

As is so often the case, an op-ed emerging from The Heritage Foundation is tripped up by the think tank’s old nemesis – math.

In the effort to cut GHG emissions and battle climate change, we don’t need to privilege better land use planning at the expense of tighter fuel economy standards. We need to harness every policy tool at our disposal, and these are two great tastes that taste great together. While it’s true that better fuel economy can undermine some of the GHG benefits of compact land use, we should clearly pursue these approaches in tandem. For, in the long-run, more compact, mixed-use development and more efficient vehicles are both important tools for improving air quality, reducing transportation costs, revitalizing our neighborhoods, enhancing public health, and battling climate change.

What impact will climate change have on air quality?

sammis power plant
sammis power plant

The Sammis Power Plant near Steubenville, Ohio, which the PUCO agreed to allow FirstEnergy to continue operating through 2024 on the backs of ratepayers (courtesy of EarthJustice).

Though it’s hardly a secret that I view climate change as the preeminent issue of this generation, I usually try to bring some sobriety to the apocalyptic current that some of my fellow climate hawks bring to the table. Whether it’s casting a skeptical eye on the hype about climate change and conflict or challenging the use of the term “climate refugee,” I try to stay fairly level headed.

So it would seem reasonable that I would be somewhat wary of the hype surrounding the major new report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program on the public health impacts of climate change. I mean, as Kyle Feldscher of the Washington Examiner tweeted, somewhat snarkily,

But, here’s the thing, sometimes when Chicken Little screams that the sky is falling, you really do need to look up. And that’s the case with climate change. As this report lays out in tremendous detail, the public health implications of inaction are staggering, whether it’s the estimated 11,000 additional deaths per year from heat-related mortality, an increase in vector- and water-borne illnesses, or a spike in the frequency and intensity of disasters, things are going to suck unless we do something like yesterday.

Importantly, due to the lengthy atmospheric lifetimes of greenhouse gases (GHG), particularly CO2, some of these impacts are already baked into the cake. While the report makes it clear that we can stave off the worst effects on public health by taking immediate action to curb GHG emissions, the fact remains that we will inevitably have to adapt to that which we cannot mitigate and suffer that which we cannot adapt to. But since most of my focus is on air quality issues these days, I wanted to take a closer look at that chapter in the report.

Tracing improvements in air quality

First, it’s crucial that we note how much air quality has improved in the United States since the passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act Amendments (CAAA). According to the U.S. EPA, ambient levels of the six criteria air pollutants fell by a combined 63% from 1980 to 2014, including an astounding 99% for lead. All this occurred even as GDP grew by 147%.

This trend has paid significant dividends for Northeast Ohio. In Cleveland, for instance, the 3-year average for carbon monoxide (CO) from 1972-1974 was 17.3 parts per billion (ppb), well in excess of the 10 ppb standard. From 2012-2014, this value had fallen to just 4.3 ppb, a 75% decrease. Back in 1978, the 3-year average level of sulfur dioxide (SO2), which is generated largely from burning coal, stood at a mind boggling 497 ppb. In 2014, that level was down to 71 ppb, below the EPA’s 75 ppb standard.

The benefits of this dramatic improvement in air quality have been staggering. One study from the EPA found that, by 2020, the 1990 CAAA will prevent 230,000 premature deaths and generate benefits totalling $2 trillion. According to renowned University of Chicago economist Michael Greenstone, the 1970 CAAA extended the life expectancy of the average American by 1.6 years, totalling more than 336 million additional life-years. Here in Cleveland, we live, on average, 2.3 years longer because of this landmark piece of legislation.

But, as I’ve discussed before, a lot of people seem to think that these numbers mean we’ve moved beyond air pollution, that it’s something we’ve relegated to the past. That’s clearly not the case, given that a 2013 study estimated air pollution led to more than 200,000 premature deaths in 2005. In Cleveland, that number was 1,363, with the majority (62%) of deaths coming from electricity generation (466) and transportation (384). Clearly we have a long way to go, and incremental improvements in air quality will do a lot to winnow this number down further.

Will climate change affect this trend?

But that’s where climate change comes into play. The two primary bogeymen in the world of air quality are ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter (PM2.5). The formation of both of these pollutants depends heavily on meteorological conditions, particularly the former. When the conditions are right, ozone and PM2.5 levels can spike, with serious consequences for anyone who breathes air.

Now, obviously the most important thing that environmental officials can do is work to reduce emissions of ozone precursors, along with direct PM2.5 and its precursors. If there are simply fewer nitrogen oxide (NOx) and volatile organic compound (VOCs) molecules floating around, there will inevitably be less ozone in the air.

And this is true – to a point. That’s why the EPA estimates that, thanks to existing regulations like the controversial Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS) and the Tier 3 Vehicle Emissions standard, ozone and PM2.5 levels will continue to decline. The agency projects, for instance, that ozone levels in Cuyahoga County will fall to 59 ppb in 2025 from 75 ppb currently.

Unfortunately, this fails to account for the impacts of climate change. Global warming is likely to make the types of meteorological conditions conducive to ozone formation – hot, still summer weather – considerably more common going forward. As the report’s authors note, “consequently, attaining national air quality standards for ground-level ozone will also be more difficult, as climate changes offset some of the improvements that would otherwise be expected from emissions reductions.”

To illustrate this effect, let’s look at recent history in Cleveland. From 2008 (when the EPA finalized its 75 ppb standard) through 2011, there were an average of 9.5 days each year when ozone levels exceeded the standard. This number plummeted further during the previous two mild summers, with 1 day and 3 days in 2014 and 2015, respectively. But then there’s 2012, the hottest year on record in the region. During that summer, we had 28 exceedance days, the highest number since 2002.

What will climate change’s impact be on air quality?

So what, exactly, does the report project? Well, it uses data from a 2015 paper by a group of EPA scientists that aims to “quantify and monetize the climate penalty” from higher ozone levels tied to climate change through 2030. Because the effects of climate change on PM2.5 are so difficult to suss out, the report focuses exclusively on ozone.

The authors use two global climate change scenarios, known as Representative Concentration Pathways (RCP) to estimate the effects. RCP 8.5 is a worst case scenario, while RCP 6.0 is slightly less pessimistic model that assumes we will take some action to curb emissions.

These models allow them to estimate the number of climate change-attributable, ozone-related premature deaths and illnesses in the US. While RCP 6.0 leads to somewhere between 37 and 170 premature deaths each year, RCP 8.5 could generate 420 to 1,900 additional early deaths. The authors find that “the economic value of these adverse outcomes ranges from $320 million to $1.4 billion for the RCP 6.0 scenario and from $3.6 to $15 billion for the RCP 8.5 scenario.”

climate change ozone impacts

The projected impacts of climate change on ozone levels and ozone-related mortality in the US for RCP 6.5 and RCP 8.0 (courtesy of Fann et al.)

These health impacts will not be distributed evenly, as the map above shows. Here the Midwest, particularly along the Great Lakes, significant global warming could drive ozone levels up by more than 5 ppb leading to tens or dozens of additional deaths. These findings are similar to those from a 2007 study (PDF) by Michelle Bell et al. in the journal Climatic Change. This study examined the impact of significant climate change on ambient ozone levels in 50 US cities by 2050. Bell et al. concluded that ambient summertime ozone levels would jump by 4.4 ppb, and every city studied would see an increase in the number of exceedance days by 2050. The average city would experience 5.5 more exceedance days per year, a 68% increase compared to the 1990s, while Cleveland could see a spike of 140%, from 7.5 to 18 days per year. The study uses the 1997 ozone standard of 85 ppb, meaning that the number of exceedances would likely be much higher for the current 2015 standard of 70 ppb. All told, ozone-related mortality was projected to increase 0.11-0.27%.

While this seems relatively insignificant, I should note that ozone is not a major cause of air pollution-related death here. If climate change was to have comparable impacts on particle pollution levels, these costs would increase by orders of magnitude. Unfortunately, this remains a real possibility. One study estimates that, while global PM2.5 concentrations may fall by up to 18%, they could increase by anywhere from 1 to 4 micrograms per cubic meter in the eastern US.

Ultimately, it’s not the projected number of additional deaths or asthma exacerbations that matters. What this report shows is that we have done an excellent job of cutting levels of harmful air pollutants, even as we increased emissions of a seemingly harmful one – CO2. But now, unless we take immediate action to slash the latter, all our great work on the former is at risk.

Let’s bring back this 1920s-era insult for reckless drivers

reckless bieber
reckless bieber

This image of Justin Bieber is among the first pictures that pop up when you Google “reckless driver.” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (Courtesy of YouTube).

Yesterday, I finally finished Fighting Traffic, Peter D. Norton’s book that outlines the battle over the United States’ transportation system during the early decades of the 20th century. In it, Norton outlines how a diverse coalition of auto interests, up to and including Commerce Secretary-cum-President of the United States Herbert Hoover, waged a coordinated campaign to reshape this country’s social, political, and physical infrastructure to usher in the age of the automobile.

Early on, “motordom” (as these individuals ultimately dubbed themselves) faced stiff opposition from the general public, regulatory officials, newspapers, and police as this dangerous vehicle usurped streets from traditional users, namely pedestrians and streetcars. A key component of this transition was the adoption and calculated use of the term “jaywalker,” which branded pedestrians that clung fast to their traditional rights to the street in the face of new restrictions as clueless bumpkins responsible for any harm that befell them.

But victory for motordom was far from guaranteed. For several years public opinion was firmly against cars, which many saw as unnecessary, inherently dangerous machines. A key turning point in this fight was the 1923 Cincinnati speed governor war, when residents tried to pass a referendum requiring all cars be equipped with a device restricting their maximum speed to 25 miles per hour. Seeing the threat this posed to their industry, car interests united for one of the first times to kill this initiative at the ballot box. Motordom was emerging as a new political force.

Realizing that speed was the primary feature that made the care an attractive transportation mode, auto groups worked to divorce the concept of safety from speed. The real threat to public safety was not speeding, they claimed, it was a small group of “reckless” drivers. Shifting responsibility from the machine to the individual also gave them space to blame reckless pedestrians for their own deaths. Good citizens followed the newly imposed traffic laws.

All of this is just stage setting for one of my favorite anecdotes in the book:

Even before the Cincinnati speed governor war, the [American Automobile Association] sought to redirect stigma and blame “the driver who terrorizes pedestrians and careful drivers alike.” In 1922, the association offered $25 – in gold – to the person who submitted an epithet for such motorists equivalent in its sting to “jaywalker.” Existing derisive names (such as “joy-rider” and “speed maniac”) implicitly linked speed and danger; the AAA needed words that left open the possibilities of safe speed and slow carelessness. The winning suggestion was “flivverboob.” Yet publicity for this word was nowhere near as extensive as that for “jaywalker,” and it never caught on.

That “flivverboob” never caught on as an insult is a damn shame. It has all the trappings of 1920s-era nonsense, and it’s just plain fun as hell to say. I wholeheartedly endorse bringing it back, even despite its dubious origins.

So, fellow cyclists and pedestrians (and defensive drivers, for that matter), the next time that some maniac behind the wheel nearly runs you off the road or t-bones you at an intersection, feel free to lob the f-word at him. But, this time, make it “flivverboob.”

There’s no congestion in Cleveland, so why are we adding capacity?

480-271 junction
480-271 junction

The junction of Interstates 480 and 271 near Warrensville Heights (courtesy of Google Maps).

Most people probably recognize TomTom as a company that manufactures and sells GPS units and fitness trackers. But developing these tools has allowed the company to develop considerable information regarding road networks and traffic conditions worldwide. TomTom uses these data to produce its annual Traffic Index, and the firm released its much awaited 2015 edition of the report earlier this week.

The report includes a wide array of information on congestion across the globe, from the amount of time that drivers spend in traffic to the individual day in 2015 when congestion was worst in each city. Many of the cities notorious for their soul crushing congestion topped the rankings, with Mexico City taking over first place from Istanbul, which fell to third behind new entrant Bangkok. Surprising no one, Los Angeles has the worst traffic in the United States, coming in 10th. Brazil, which has some of the worst gridlock in the world, had more cities in the top 10 than any other country. Rio, Salvador, and Recife ranked fourth, seventh, and eighth respectively.

The pros and cons of congestion for cities

TomTom ranks cities using a metric it terms “congestion level.” It defines this variable as the “increase in overall travel times when compared to a Free Flow situation.” In other words, it indicates how much longer a given trip will take in a city, due to congestion, compared to a situation in which the flow of traffic was completely unobstructed. In Mexico City, for example, traffic ensures that the average trip takes 59% longer than it would otherwise. Capitalinos spend 219 hours – more than 9 full days – per year waiting in traffic.

Sitting in traffic sucks. There’s no question about that. It consumes time people could spend doing something more productive or fulfilling, it wastes substantial amounts of fuel,  exacerbates air pollution, interrupts economic output, and discourages people from entering congested areas. As Yogi Berra famously quipped, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

But, congestion also hints that a city is succeeding. If a lot of people are trying to get into and around your city, that probably indicates that the city is doing well – at least up to a certain threshold. It’s when your roads are totally empty and you can get around town without tapping the brake that you should be worried.

cleveland congestion level history

Cleveland’s congestion level history from 2008 to 2016 (courtesy of TomTom).

Congestion? What congestion?

If you ask the average commuter in Greater Cleveland, s/he is likely to complain that we have issues with traffic. After all, many of our major interstates, particularly the Innerbelt, have been under construction for years now. This constant construction, combined with the ballyhooed revival of downtown must be making the streets more crowded, right?

LOL. The TomTom index ranked 174 cities based upon their respective levels of congestion. Cleveland came in 168th with a congestion level of just 11%. In other words, of the 174 cities for which TomTom had traffic data, just 7 of them have less traffic than Cleveland. What’s more, traffic actually eased somewhat from 2014 to 2015, falling from 12%. In the eight years that TomTom has been publishing its index, Cleveland has had congestion levels of 11% six times and 12% twice. That’s it.

According to the report, travel times for the average Cleveland commuter increase by just 20% and 25% during our morning and evening “rush hours,” respectively. The single worst hour of the week for travelers is 5:00-6:00pm Wednesdays, when the congestion index tops out at 27%. For the sake of comparison, there are 78 cities that have an average congestion level of 27% or more.

Expanding capacity to solve a nonexistent congestion problem

Given the fact that Cleveland has little, if any, traffic problems, one would expect our local and state transportation planners to avoid adding capacity. We clearly have enough roads as it is.

And this is exactly NOACA has done. The NOACA Board of Directors officially adopted a “fix it first” policy last September, indicating that it would prioritize funding to repairing our existing road network, rather than adding to it. Every lane mile that we add simply increases our financial liabilities, because it’s extra pavement to lay, repair, clear from snow and ice, etc.

There have been some rumors floating around the interwebs that ODOT would adopt a similar policy. This would be a huge deal, albeit one reportedly driven solely by financial realities, as opposed to enlightened self-interest. And yet, when the agency announced $2.1 billion in road and bridge projects it plans to complete this year, the list included plans to widen three separate freeways in Greater Cleveland:  I-271, I-77, and I-76/77. Granted, these projects have been in the works for a long time, and it was highly unlikely they’d be scrapped, regardless of whether or not we really need them. It is what it is.

Yet, we know that widening urban highways has directly contributed to the sprawl and population loss that has plagued Cleveland for 50 years. In a 2007 study, Brown University economist Nathaniel Baum-Snow concluded that every new highway that passes through a center city cut its population by 18%. According to Baum-Snow, “had the interstate highway system not been built, instead of declining by 17 percent, aggregate central city population would have grown by 8 percent” from 1950-1990.

We have entirely too much pavement in this region. NOACA (PDF) has indicated that there are 670,795,906 square feet of federal aid roadways in Northeast Ohio. That’s equal to just over 24 square miles of pavement, roughly the size of the City of Strongsville. But here we are again, adding capacity, even as this pavement falls into disrepair. NOACA estimates that 46% of the region’s pavement falls short of being in a state of good repair. The cost of just bringing that roughly 308 million square feet of pavement into good repair is somewhere on the order of $1 billion.

But hey, that’s for another day! Why fix what we already have when we can widen highways so that “motorists [who] are putting on make-up or even shaving” don’t have to worry about keeping their eyes on the road. That’s just good public policy.

The startling costs of air pollution on unborn children

robert wyly cleveland pollution
robert wyly cleveland pollution

Industrial pollution obscures Cleveland’s cityscape in this 1960 photo from Robert Wyly (courtesy of Elvin Wyly).

In a developing fetus, one of the the last organs to form fully is the lungs. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) defines a preterm birth (PTB) as one that occurs before 37 weeks of gestation. This definition is, in part, due to the fact that the fetus does not begin to develop pulmonary surfactant, a vital lipoprotein that allows the lungs to remain expanded as one breathes, until around 30 weeks. All told, a child born before 36 weeks will struggle to breathe on his/her own.

PTB remains a serious issue in the United States. It is responsible for 35% of infant deaths, making it the single leading cause of infant mortality, and it can contribute to major cognitive and developmental disabilities. Given the vital role that lung function plays in infant health, it is clear that PTB directly affects a child’s ability to take in air. But what about the reverse? Could the air that a fetus (and its mother) breathes contribute to PTB? New research suggests that’s the case.

Drawing the link between air quality and preterm birth

Earlier this week, the journal Environmental Health Perspectives published a study from three researchers at New York University that explored the connection between air pollution and PTB. As I’ve noted in the past, there is a plethora of studies linking air pollution to low birth weight, PTB, and infant mortality. This study builds upon that literature by determining the proportion of PTB that is directly attributable air pollution.

In order to explore this issue, the researchers decided to examine the impact of the single worst criteria air pollutant, fine particulate matter (PM2.5). They assembled county level PTB values during 2010 from the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) WONDER database. Next, sing established epidemiological methods, they then calculated the proportion of PTBs in each county attributable to PM2.5 pollution, using a reference ambient concentration of 8.8 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3). This level of pollution is what the World Health Organization uses to determine the global burden of disease caused by outdoor air pollution.

Nationally, PTB rates have fallen to 11.3%, but they remain far too high. According to the study’s authors, 3.32% of all preterm births in the continental United States during 2010 were due to particle pollution. This amounts to 15,808 PTBs in that year alone.

Calculating the social costs of PTB from air pollution

But the authors did not stop there.  Theirs is the first study to quantify the economic impacts of this link. They developed estimates of the medical costs associated with PTB for children from birth through 5 years of age. To this value, they added the costs of lost economic productivity from reduced cognitive function and potential.

According to the study, the average premature child suffers an 11.9 point IQ decrement, which leaves them significantly disadvantaged compared to their peers.

Based on the best available data, the authors find:

These estimated numbers of attributable preterm births cost $760 million in medical care…and $4.33 billion…in lost economic productivity was also identified (based on estimated reductions in IQ and estimated consequences for productivity over a lifetime). In total, we estimated that $5.09 billion in preterm birth-related costs (medical care costs and lost economic productivity combined) could be attributed to PM2.5

Uneven distribution of costs

But, predictably, these costs are not distributed evenly among counties or demographic groups. The single highest fraction of PTBs attributable to particle pollution occurred here in Ohio, where 5.44% of all PTBs – 924 children in 2010 – are due to our polluted air. Compare this to New Mexico and Wyoming, states with drastically lower PTB rates, where the attributable fraction is just 0.12%. This leads to total annual costs of just under $300 million in Ohio: $253 million in lost economic productivity and $44.4 million in medical care costs.

Unfortunately, the authors did not provide supplemental data breaking down these attributable fractions and costs by county or metro area. They do provide a map that shows the percentage of PTB attributable to particle pollution by county, but it lumps all values above 5% together.

preterm birth from pollution by county

The percentage of preterm births attributable to particle pollution by county in 2010.

That said, Greater Cleveland has extremely high levels of both particle pollution and PTB. Cuyahoga County is one of just nine nonattainment areas for the 2012 PM2.5 standard, and Cleveland has the third highest PTB rate in the country. Pollution almost certainly accounts for a larger proportion of PTBs here then the state average. Additionally, based on data from the Ohio EPA, the annual ambient concentration of PM2.5 in Cuyahoga County during 2010 was 13.7μg/m3, 56% higher than the reference level of 8.8μg/m3 that the authors applied. Given this fact, I have to conclude that significantly more than 5% of PTBs in this region are tied to air pollution.

But let’s be conservative and assume that particle pollution is only responsible for 6% of preterm births in Cuyahoga County. That still means that the parents of 126 premature children born in 2010 can place the blame squarely on our elevated levels of particle pollution. If we raise this threshold to 10% – not an unreasonable assumption – this number increases to 209.

Additionally, Cuyahoga County accounts for 12.3% (2,093 out of 17,007) of all PTBs in Ohio during 2010. If we apportion this share, that means the county incurred $36.6 million in costs.

These numbers are equal parts dumbfounding and infuriating. The quality – or lack thereof – of the air we breathe day in and day out affects everyone of us here in Greater Cleveland. But it doesn’t just harm those of who have the means to choose where we live. It reaches into the womb and directly affects the futures of children who have never even taken a breath.

It’s well past time we stop pretending that air quality doesn’t affect every one of us profoundly and in a number of ways.

If you want to make a walkable city, you need to do the little things well

saddest crosswalk sign
saddest crosswalk sign

The saddest crosswalk sign in Cleveland.

Last week, while riding my bike to work, I stumbled across a sight that was both frightening both for its content and for how commonplace it seems to have become recently.

As I came to a stop at the corner of West 25th and Chatham Avenue, I saw a person lying in the street, surrounded by concerned onlookers. A bus idled parallel to the crowd, and a car with obvious front-end damage was stopped in the middle of the street.

It was at this point that the light changed, and I had to resume my commute. I only saw the scene for a minute or two, but it was enough for me to piece together some semblance of a narrative. It appeared as though the pedestrian – I never actually saw the person from the waist up – had attempted to cross West 25th to catch the waiting bus. At that point, this person was struck by the car, which bore the telltale signs of damage around the driver’s side headlight. I have no way of knowing whether or not the person had the right of way, but the fact that the car was damaged suggests the collision was violent.

This was not the first time that I came across the aftermath of a car-on-pedestrian collision. Back in 2011, again while biking, I happened upon a 17-year old young man lying dead in a pool of his own blood on Ontario Street, just south of Public Square. The driver who struck him was standing outside his car, speaking to police. He was visibly shaken. I later learned that the 17-year old had run into the street after his skateboard, and the driver was unable to stop in time. It’s a scene that haunts me to this day. While the driver was found not to be at fault, this was a visceral reminder of the stark imbalance between drivers and pedestrians. If a teenager makes one bad decision, he may never make another.

It’s through this lens that I read the glowing coverage on the proposed updates to the City of Cleveland’s downtown zoning regulations. The City Planning Commission seems committed to moving towards form-based zoning, at least in limited areas, in an attempt to make our city more walkable and pedestrian friendly. Unfortunately, this pilot “urban core overlay” would only occur in the area of downtown near the proposed Weston-Citymark development. While this is welcome, it risks reinforcing one of the complaints that a number of us have made over the past few years – namely, the City seems preoccupied with big, shiny, expensive projects, rather than the types of small changes that can immediately improve peoples’ lives.

If you know me or have read things that I’ve written here in the past, you probably realize that I’m a proponent of incremental progress. It’s great to push for the Big Things that can help shift paradigms, but we shouldn’t ignore the types of small, tangible changes that help people at the margins. It’s just as important to do the little things well.

With this in mind, I’ve been wanting to explore how well the City of Cleveland addresses the small details that can go a long way towards improving pedestrians’ quality of life. Vibrant NEO 2040, the landmark report produced by the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium, laid out a few of the important things that cities can do to enhance their walkability (see “Pedestrian Orientation” section). The City of Cleveland was an active participant in this process, and this document is supposed to inform planning in the region going forward. Using these criteria, let’s consider Cleveland’s progress – or lack thereof.

1.) Do all intersections include crosswalks and pedestrian signals?

One of the simplest and most important things a city can do is to ensure that every intersection is equipped with crosswalks and pedestrian signals. This simple addition of some painted lines and signals carves out a small part of the street where pedestrians have a legally enforceable right to space. It is only in these crosswalks during these designated periods when a pedestrian can reasonably expect to have his/her rights protected from the 2,000 pound metal boxes that dominate our roads. Surely Cleveland is succeeding in this most fundamental of areas, right?

Not exactly. Consider the intersection where I came across that injured pedestrian last week. The collision occurred roughly parralel to that red marker. As you can see in the satellite image below, there are only crosswalks at three of the four points at this busy intersection. Keep in mind that this is just south of the corner of Lorain Avenue, home to the West Side Market and an array of bars, restaurants, and shops.

west 25th chatham

The intersection of West 25th Street and Chatham Avenue in the Ohio City neighborhood (courtesy of Google Maps).

If you head just about a block northwest of this intersection, you will come across another heavily trafficked area – the West 25th Street rapid station on Lorain Avenue. Again, this is one of the busiest stations in RTA’s rail network, and it lies just across the street from the West Side Market. Surely pedestrians should be able to head out of the station and immediately cross Lorain to get to the Market? Well, as you can see, that’s not possible. Instead, they have to first cross West 24th Street/Gehring Avenue, then wait to cross Lorain. It’s all the more galling when you consider that this intersection is located on the edge of one of Cleveland’s pedestrian retail overlay districts.

west 25th rapid station

An aerial view of the streets around the West 25th rapid station in Cleveland (courtesy of Google Maps).

2.) Are all pedestrian signals set to actuate at all times (i.e. not pedestrian actuated)?

Once again, this seems like a small thing. It makes a pedestrian’s life a lot easier if she knows that regardless of when she gets to the intersection during the cycle, the walk signal is going to trigger when it’s supposed to. If that’s not the case, you may either have to wait through multiple cycles of the light to cross safely or take the risk of crossing when the walk sign is not activated.

Let’s head just two blocks east from our last intersection, down Lorain Avenue, to corner of West 20th Street. This is a very popular cut through point for commuters who want to avoid traffic on I-71 as they enter downtown via the Lorain-Carnegie (Hope Memorial) Bridge. Likewise, I frequently bike down Abbey to West 20th in order to access the multi-use path on the bridge more safely.

But, alas, the signals at West 20th and Lorain are pedestrian actuated. If I fail to trigger the signal before the light on West 20th turns green – which, I would estimate, happens roughly half of the time – I either have to wait another cycle or risk crossing the street without the signal in the face of drivers making aggressive right-hand turns onto the bridge. I cannot count the number of times that I have nearly been run down in that intersection, even when I had the signal.

west 20th lorain

Intersection of West 20th Street and Lorain Avenue, just west of the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge (courtesy of Google Maps).

3.) Has the city installed “leading pedestrian interval” signals, which allow pedestrians to start ahead of vehicular traffic?

To be honest, this one is more aspirational than anything. I came across these signals throughout Washington, DC, but I hold out little hope that they’ll be installed here soon. (Keep in mind that the State of Ohio passed a law in 2013 requiring pedestrians to yield to cars turning right.)

Realistically, I just want the City to ensure that every pedestrian signal is synced to the traffic light. That is, the walk sign should activate as soon as the light turns green for cars, and the signal should not switch from flashing don’t walk to sold don’t walk until that traffic light turns yellow. At the very least, pedestrians should be afforded the same legal rights as the cars, right?

fulton bridge west 32nd

The five-points intersection of Fulton Road (north-south), Bridge Avenue (east-west) and West 32nd Street in Ohio City (courtesy of Google Maps).

Once again, that’s not the case. Let’s consider the case of the five-points intersection of Fulton Road, Bridge Avenue, and West 32nd Street. If you are walking down Fulton, you will soon discover that the walk signal does not remain activated long enough for you to cross Bridge.

From crossing this intersection on a nearly daily basis, I have learned that from the moment that the solid don’t walk sign comes on, I have exactly 12 seconds to cross Bridge before the light turns yellow. In other words, the City affords drivers a full 12 extra seconds of legal authority that pedestrians cannot claim. If I was hit by a driver turning onto Bridge, it’s entirely possible that I could be found at fault for crossing without the signal.

This is far from the only example of the City further stacking the decks in the favor of drivers.

Let’s consider the curious case of West St. Clair Avenue. Say you are a visitor to Cleveland, attending an event at our $425 million, publicly financed Convention Center, and you wanted to head to the nearest Starbucks to get your overpriced caffeine fix. You would need to head west down West St. Clair, form West Mall Drive to West 6th Street. Along the way, you would need to go through three separate intersections – Ontario Avenue, West 3rd, and West 6th. The traffic lights at each of these intersections includes a left turn arrow so that drivers heading south down one of these cross streets can get a head start. But that shouldn’t affect you as you head west down the north side of the street, right? I mean, those cars can’t possibly hit you when they’re turning the exact opposite direction.

west st. clair

West St. Clair Avenue in downtown Cleveland (courtesy of Google Maps).

Yet, for a reason about as clear as asphalt, the pedestrian signals on the north side of St. Clair at each of these intersections are set such that the walk sign does not come on until the left turn arrow deactivates. That may make sense if there was a right turn arrow or if the left turn signal applied for cars heading in both directions on West St. Clair. But it doesn’t. Instead, someone in the City decided that it made sense to force pedestrians to wait so that cars three lanes south of then could turn farther south. Because logic.

There are a number of other criteria that we could use to judge Cleveland’s walkability. Are there mid-block crossings? (Yes.) Are they plentiful? (No.) Do they all have signs? (Some, but they aren’t maintained – see above.) Do drivers respect them? (Hell no.) Do all of the pedestrian signals have countdown timers? (Not even in downtown.) Do any of the pedestrian signals include verbal cues for the visually impaired? (No, given that I have had to escort a confused blind man across Superior Avenue.)

I certainly recognize that Cleveland is making very real progress in its effort to enhance bike and pedestrian infrastructure. But, all too often, we spend money on things that look nice or seem nice in theory, even as we overlook the little things that can make a tangible difference. I understand that elected officials don’t get to attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony when you sync a pedestrian signal to the traffic light, but these seemingly small things matter. Until officials commit to tackling these easy-to-fix problems, the focus on the Big projects will seem like little more than PR.

Idling cars are the tools of the devil

vehicle exhaust
vehicle exhaust

Vehicle exhaust contains a number of harmful pollutants, including fine particulate matter, and it is increasingly the primary source of urban air pollution (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Thus far, El Niño has more or less kept winter at bay here in Cleveland. Well, that’s all changing this week. I guess once Mother Nature heard an overgrown rodent said we were getting an early spring this year, she got pissed.

Winter is back with a vengeance. We’re going to see temperatures drop to perhaps their lowest point of the year this weekend, and forecasters are calling for five or six separate fronts to bring snow over the next week or so. All of this should help to cut into our substantial snow deficit. As of Monday, the National Weather Service had recorded just 11.2 inches of snow this winter, roughly 26 inches below normal. That deficit has already shrunk by one-fifth, and it will continue to decrease.

The return of winter means a few things. First, our profuse application of road salt – with all its inherent environmental consequences – means that everything will adopt a fine coating of sodium chloride. Second, those of us walking through the city will trudge through unshoveled sidewalks and try to avoid the ubiquitous puddles of filthy, half-melted slush, which could either be an inch deep or the bottomless pit that Ozzie Smith fell into on The Simpsons. And third, people will idle their cars left and right. The other day, I walked past a St. Ignatius security guard who was idling his car in a parking lot on Lorain Avenue. When I came back an hour later, he was still idling his vehicle, all the while straddling three separate parking spots (including a handicapped space).

Now, I see the appeal of vehicle idling in the winter, but I don’t really understand the level of passion that idlers bring to the table. A few weeks ago, our local ABC affiliate, WEWS, reposted an article on why drivers should avoid idling their cars during the winter. Within a few hours, the pro-idling commenter horde descended to inform the reporters just how wrongheaded they were.

I know – never read the comments – but individuals insisted that “this is the dumbest thing I’ve ever read. Warming up car by idle (sic) is very good” and “cold oil will destroy your engine.” And, of course, the coup de grace: “Stupid article with gas prices at a (sic) all time low I could careless (sic) if I waste gas warming up my car especially when the windows are frosted or frozen.”

Let’s assume for a minute that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and basically every other authority on this topic, including car-makers, know more about vehicle idling than random internet commenters. Can we marshal the available information to help dissuade some of these pervasive myths on idling? Of course we can. So let’s do that.

“Warming up car by idle is very good”

This one is perhaps the most common idling myth, and, like all good myths, there is a kernel of truth here.

The EPA says that, on average, cars get 12% worse gas mileage during cold weather. However, this was a much bigger issue for older model years, particularly those that employed carburetors. Modern fuel injection systems automatically adjust to exterior weather conditions. Furthermore, cars warm up twice as quickly when driven as they do while stationary. It may be nice to sit in a car that you warmed up with your remote start on frigid winter mornings, but you’re not doing your car any favors.

“Cold oil will destroy your engine”

No, no it won’t. Again, this myth is ubiquitous, but it’s highly out of date. Modern, synthetic engine oils do not need to warm up first. They can flow properly at temperatures as low as -40°F. It may have been cold as hell last February, but we still live in Cleveland, not Barrow or Yellowknife.

Beyond this, idling is actually harder on your car than driving it normally. While batteries commonly stall out in cold temperatures, idling does more long-term damage. As they idle, car batteries continue to expend energy to the car’s components. This process leads to deeper engine cycling, which forces the battery to discharge more energy during normal engine operation. Discharged batteries, in turn, produce less power; this means that subsequent engine starts will require even more energy and take longer, which will shorten a battery’s lifespan.

Idling is hard on cars in other ways as well. It is true that a number of vehicle components, such as the starter, are designed to last a set number of starts. This would seem to suggest that idling your car would place less wear and tear on a vehicle over time. But again, this is not true. According to Natural Resources Canada, idling your car for just 46 seconds is worse and more costly than turning it off and back. In addition to straining the battery, idling engines do not run at an optimal temperature, which leads to the incomplete combustion of gasoline. This leaves fuel residue in the engine – not to mention producing more pollution – and can cut fuel economy by around 5%.

“I could careless if I waste gas warming up my car”

Would that I were so wealthy. But let’s consider exactly how much gas this gentleman – who I assume is Rich Uncle Pennybags from Monopoly – is wasting by idling.

Every two minutes that a vehicle spends idling consumes the same amount of gas as driving two miles. The average vehicle spends 60-73 hours idling per year, which accounts for 5-7% of total fuel use. Based on information from the Argonne National Laboratory, if a person idles for 10 minutes per day, s/he can waste up to 30-50 gallons of gas per year.

The true costs of vehicle idling

But, if you’re familiar with anything I’ve ever written, I’m more interested in trying to figure out the social costs of our idling habits. If everyone in Cleveland idles so profligately, what are the effect on the larger scale? How might all of that extra, inefficient fuel use add to the costs of air pollution and climate change?

With that question in mind, I decided to do some back-of-the-envelope calculations. According to a 2009 study from Amanda Carrico and colleagues, the average American idles approximately 16.1 minutes per day. More than half of that idle time (8.2 minutes) occurs due to traffic lights, congestion, stop signs, and the like, so we’ll eliminate it. This leaves 7.9 minutes of idling per day – 4.2 minutes for warming up the car and 3.7 minutes while waiting (to pick some up one, in the drive thru, etc.).

Next, we need to determine the population of passenger cars in the Cleveland area. According to data from the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles, there were 2,130,794 passenger vehicles registered in the seven counties that make up Northeast Ohio last year. Of course, not all of those vehicles will idle that amount each day, so I will adjust these numbers to reflect the percentage of the general population that reported idling for warming (48%) and waiting (46%) for more than 30 seconds at a time in the Carrico et al. study.

We now need to figure out how much pollution and fuel cars consume while idling. Fortunately, the EPA has provided this information, though they do not have estimates for particulate matter emissions (which are, by far, the most harmful conventional pollutant in vehicle exhaust).

idling emissions calculations

Annual vehicle idling emissions in the seven counties of Northeast Ohio (author’s estimates).

Using information from the US Department of Transportation (updated to 2015$) and the EPA’s social cost of carbon, we can estimate the total public health costs of these idling emissions per year.

idling cost calculations

Total annual costs of vehicle idling in Northeast Ohio (author’s estimates).

So, by my (admittedly rough) estimates, vehicle idling carries social costs of more than $58 million per in Northeast Ohio alone. While the vast majority of these costs come from wasted fuel, there are still nearly $3.5 million in air pollution related costs. I could go down the rabbit hole of trying to estimate the morbidity and mortality costs associated with these pollutants, but I’ll spare you the arm-waving wonkery. But let’s not pretend that this wasted fuel has no effects. Oil extraction has significant environmental consequences throughout the process from well to tank, and – given that is a nonrenewable resource – all of this valuable fuel could have been put to more productive uses. Waste is waste is waste.

As all the available evidence and my calculations show, vehicle idling is far from beneficial. On the contrary, is wasteful, costly, and illegal in many places. If this one small component of driving carries this large of an impact on our region, can you imagine the aggregate costs of our cars? Comfort is important, but it’s not everything. So turn the damn engine off next time. Your lungs and wallet will thank you.