When it comes to Public Square, where have all the bollards gone?

public square drawings bollards
public square drawings bollards

If you look closely, you will see retractable bollards on Superior, running parallel to West and East Roadways in this rendering from Field Operations (courtesy of Cleveland.com).

Last week, Mayor Frank Jackson and Chief of Police Calvin Williams sent separate letters to the Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx and Federal Transit Administration acting head Carolyn Flowers, respectively, in which they asked the two agencies to extend the deadline for GCRTA to pay the $12 million fine for closing the Public Square bus lanes.

Both letters emphasized the city’s safety concerns, particularly the threat that someone may use the 600-foot stretch of Superior Avenue to drive a large truck into a crowd of people, as we saw unfold in the tragic attacks in Nice and Berlin.

Chief Williams’ letter, in particular, echoed earlier statements from Public Safety Director Michael McGrath:

Of particular concern is the recent and continued use of motor vehicles by terrorists to attack citizens attending public events. Ohio is one of a few states to receive particular attention by federal authorities in the past few months. Opening Public Square to cross traffic allows a determined individual to gain speed traveling on Superior Avenue and divert directly into a crowd gathered on the square.

The threat of terrorism should always be accounted for, as it is an all too common reality in today’s world. But, while Mayor Jackson and his public safety officials keep hyping it time and time again as a justification for closing the Square, they have failed to even discuss alternative options to – say it with me – mitigate this risk.

Let’s ignore, for a minute, whether or not GCRTA or the FTA has any regulatory obligation to address this question, as Mayor Jackson keeps insisting, and take him at his word.

I’ve met the Mayor on a few occasions, and I’ve always found him to be a polite man who is generous with his time and seems to legitimately care about the people he is supposed to serve. So I am willing to believe that he honestly worries about the safety risks. That said, why does he appear so ardently opposed to considering other options, short of closing the Square entirely?

The threat from vehicles is not new

As Chief Williams noted in his letter, there is “particularly concern” stemming from “the recent and continued use of motor vehicles by terrorists.”

But we should not be ahistorical and pretend that this trend is somehow new. Quite the opposite. Terrorists have been using vehicles as weapons for decades now, stemming back at least to the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993.

In response, cities around the world have installed barriers to prevent individuals from getting their vehicles close enough to buildings to cause the type of devastation we witnessed in this attack. As New York University professor Marita Sturken described in her book Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero:

The 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing both had high destructive impact because trucks were able to get into or next to the buildings. This has produced and industry in the construction of such devices as bollards and NoGos. Steel or concrete bollards, which now surround the vast majority of government buildings, are designed to stop a truck going fifty miles an hour. Sleek bollards are a now a key feature of security design…While Washington, D.C., has been the site of the most obvious barriers for federal buildings, there are now many projects to situate bollards around tourist sites such as the Washington Mall in ways that are less intrusive and more aesthetically pleasing.

So why did the City of Cleveland and its partners in the Public Square redesign not include concrete bollards, NoGos, or some other form of vehicle barrier along the curbs on Superior Avenue to – you guessed it – mitigate these terrorism concerns?

Vehicle barriers already exist in Cleveland

It’s not as though, like contemporary fashion, these design features have stayed on the East Coast and not yet filtered over to Cleveland yet. On the contrary, we already have bollards, barriers, and planters installed outside of buildings throughout downtown, including City Hall, the Federal Reserve Bank, the Federal Building, and Key Tower, which sits just steps from the newly redesigned Square. We already had the foresight to install them at other sensitive locations, so why not Public Square?


Moreover, we have already installed bollards curbside along other public green spaces in Cleveland! East and West Mall Drives run parallel to Mall B downtown. As you can see below, in order to lower the risk that a car could jump the curb from those streets and crash into a gathering on the Mall, officials installed bollards. We’re already doing this.

bollards west mall drive

Bollards, both permanent and removable, abut West Mall Drive, protecting Mall B from vehicles.

We need to talk about the Malls

But, unlike Public Square, not every public green space in downtown Cleveland has raised the same breathless specter of terrorism. Venture just across the street south to Mall A, and you can see that the bollards disappear. The same thing happens when you head north to Mall C. Hell, even if you just go around the corner on Mall B, there are no bollards abutting St. Clair.


Each of the Malls runs along wide avenues – St. Clair and Lakeside – that can hold high volumes of traffic moving at high speeds. Each of them includes curb cuts that could allow someone to drive up off the street without being slowed down.

These Malls have been the sites of many large public gatherings, from protests to yoga classes to art installations to the Gay Games Festival Village and the Cleveland Orchestra’s Fourth of July concert. Where was the administration raising terrorism concerns when they were redesigned on the public dime, also to much fanfare? What makes Public Square so uniquely vulnerable?

I understand that the Square has a street bifurcating it, but similar conditions exist just a stone’s throw away.

What happened to the retractable bollards?

More galling, the original design of the Square, which starchitect James Corner unveiled in 2014, actually included retractable bollards at the intersections of Superior and East and West Roadways, which could be raised to close the street for special events. The City and its partners included these bollards in the plan, but scrapped them somewhere along the way.

Whose call was this? What was the justification?

So what’s really going on here?

Even if you take the administration at their word and assume their motives are pure, their arguments don’t hold up to scrutiny. This raises the question – what is their actual motivation?

Is it the Mayor’s assertion that the City was shocked by how popular the new space was? Are we honestly supposed to believe that the City spent tens of millions of dollars on a new Public Square, under the assumption that a few dozen people would maybe use it sometimes?

Or could it be, as Councilman Zack Reed suggested and Chief of Staff Ken Silliman perhaps accidentally admitted on November 30, that the businesses in and around the Square (including those who helped fund its completion) don’t want “those people” hanging around, waiting for the bus? If this is your real motivation, I urge you to reconsider.

Ultimately, each of these arguments falls apart when you actually hold it under the microscope.

We never should have gotten to this point, where GCRTA is facing a potentially crippling fine. Our elected and appointed officials should be able to demonstrate even a modicum of foresight and planning on issues such as this.

Public Square is an outstanding public space, and everyone should be able to utilize it. But, despite its many excellent features that make it unique in Cleveland, it is not uniquely vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

If you want to mitigate this risk, by all means do so. But that does not require closing the Square to buses.

Open Public Square to buses, because bus riders deserve nice things, too


Unless you’ve been living under a rock or don’t pay attention to debates about public transit and green space in Cleveland (so, 99.9999% of the world), you probably know that the other shoe dropped in the Public Square bus lane debate late last month, when the Federal Transit Administration sent a Notice of Debt to GCRTA for $12 million in funds for the Euclid Corridor/HealthLine bus rapid transit (BRT) project.

This debate has now really come to a head, as FTA provided just 30 days (starting December 20) for GCRTA to pay the full fine or file a formal dispute.

To this point, the fight over the Public Square bus lanes has taken on a number of forms. There was was Mayor Frank Jackson’s claim that the Square was more popular than they anticipated and his fiery assertions that FTA is using the fine to distract from its legal obligations to ameliorate the City’s continued claims of terrorist threats (of course, as Sam Allard has reported, it appears the Mayor completely made these up, but YOLO I guess).

There were those noted the logistical and financial hardship placed on GCRTA from having to drive around the Square, while others have raised the safety risks inherent in forcing bus drivers to take more than 1.1 million additional turns. Tragically, we saw those risks unfold on December 7. Still others made unnecessarily esoteric arguments about marginal emissions due to the decision; seriously, what nerd did that?

Moving beyond the numbers to the people in this debate

But, for the most part, the parties waging this policy battle have not gone into detail on the impacts of dispersing riders who would otherwise transfer or catch their buses in the Square to outlying bus stops. There are two main exceptions to this. The first was Councilman Zack Reed’s – shall we say – entertaining descent into the Cleveland.com comments section during the November 30 City Council Transportation Committee hearing. The second was a story from WEWS, which relayed safety concerns from riders about being displaced from the bus stops on the Square to others which were poorly lit and located.

It’s to this issue that I want to turn now, in light of a recent study (paywall) from the Transportation Research Board, which focuses on how the physical environment can affect people’s perceptions of bus waiting times.

In their introduction, authors Marina Lagune-Reutler, Andrew Guthrie, Yingling Fan, and David Levinson (herein Lagune-Reutler et al) point out that the amount of time transit users spend waiting to ride is vital for shaping people’s perceptions of public transit. Research event suggests that time and service quality are more important for influencing people’s transportation mode choice than financial costs. Accordingly, if a transit agency makes efforts to cut waiting times, or even the perception of waiting times, they can enhance their public standing and potentially increase ridership without undertaking major capital investments.

A wide array of previous research demonstrates that several variables can influence how long people feel they have waited for their bus or train to arrive. A 1993 study from global consulting behemoth Parsons Brinckerhoff – which, coincidentally, GCRTA is paying $60,000 to conduct a study to find alternatives to opening Public Square – in the Twin Cities showed that access to clear, reliable information on waiting times affects riders’ sense of time. According to the study, a lack of reliable service and unpredictable delays can increase the perceived amount of time spent waiting among transit users. Given that GCRTA has continued to cut service, and CEO Joe Calabrese has reported that 43% of buses that transit Public Square are delayed due to the closure, this issue clearly affects bus riders.

A separate 2016 study (paywall) from Fan, Guthrie, and Levinson found that women, in particular, report perceiving longer waiting times at transit stops and stations located in unsafe environments. “At a simple curbside bus stop, a 10-min wait seems to take nearly a half hour.”

In contrast, a 2014 study conducted in Naples, Italy (paywall) by Ennio Cascetta and Armando Cartenì reported that high-quality waiting environments can not only reduce perceived waiting times, they can actually provide “hedonic value” – a sense of pleasure or happiness – among riders, especially women. This research again applies to the case at hand, as women constitute a majority of GCRTA riders, overall, and they account for even larger shares of bus and BRT riders.

gender rta riders

GCRTA riders by gender, by mode. Women account for a majority of all riders, as well as a majority of riders for all modes, other than heavy rail, which is the Red Line Rapid (courtesy of GCRTA).

Capturing the impacts of the transit waiting environment

Lagune-Reutler et al build upon this earlier work to examine how transit waiting environments influenced perceived waiting times at 36 stations in the Twin Cities. The stops were classified according to several variables, including: type (transitway station, transit center, improved curbside stop, or unimproved curbside stop); location (residential or commercial, urban or suburban); and a pleasantness score (low, medium, or high). They analyzed the influence of a number of independent variables, using measures of traffic safety and neighborhood security like posted speed limits, traffic volume, sidewalk characteristics, streetlights, vacant properties, noise and air pollution levels, and tree cover.

The authors conducted surveys from 822 transit users to capture the amount of time they felt they spent waiting for the bus or train during July-August 2013 and February-April 2014. They then compared these self-reported times to video footage, which provided actual waiting time for these same participants.

The waiting is the hardest part

Their results showed that, on average, transit users tended to overestimate their waiting times by roughly 18%, stating they felt they waited for a mean of 6.45 minutes, when the actual value was 5.48 minutes. Air pollution and heavy traffic combined to cause riders to significantly overestimate their waiting times. A 2.5-minute wait was seen as 3.88 minutes, while a 10-minute wait grew to 12.13.

Tree cover, in turn, can alleviate this effect, particularly for longer waits. Riders perceived their 10-minute waits as lasting just 7 minutes when surrounded by mature trees. According to the authors,

Generally, the results suggest that the more trees present, the shorter the wait time is perceived by riders, whereas the more polluted and exposed to traffic, the more transit users tend to overestimate wait time. These findings advocate for high-quality urban environments surrounding stops and stations.

This finding provides an important point that has largely been ignored in the Public Square debate to this point. It’s not simply a matter of whether closing the Square to buses will cost more or whether a unified square is more aesthetically appealing. What matters is that transit riders have every right to take advantage of this outstanding public green space, which their tax dollars helped finance, and that doing so will make them more inclined to enjoy their transit experiences.

Mitigate for me, not for thee

Throughout his 20-minute rant against the FTA and GCRTA on December 30, Mayor Jackson kept repeating one word: mitigate.

He was trying to mitigate the risks of terrorism. FTA has an obligation to mitigate safety concerns. The City and GCRTA can mitigate service disruptions. There was no way for him to mitigate the pain and suffering Joan Keundig’s family is experiencing. Mitigate, mitigate, mitigate. But one thing the Mayor did not focus on was mitigating the burden placed upon bus riders who have been forced off of the Square.

The types of transit waiting environments that Lagune-Reutler et al outline, which can mitigate this burden, perfectly describe Public Square.

The bus stations are new, well-lit, largely protected from the elements, and include a transit system map. Bus riders on the Square are surrounded by other pedestrians – both transit users and non-users alike – and, frequently, police, providing additional eyes on the street, which can mitigate security concerns. The stations are flanked by new trees and vegetation, helping to address the tree cover variable. And Superior itself is dedicated for buses and bikes exclusively, mitigating concerns about traffic, noise, and air pollution. (The current arrangement, as I’ve demonstrated, exacerbates those issues.)

Honestly, if you read the description of the ideal transit waiting environment from the study, it just sounds like they’re describing Public Square to you:

First, creating exclusive transit lanes or streets reserved for transit, bicycles, and pedestrians (where feasible) is likely to reduce waiting time perceptions by increasing distances between waiting areas and automobile traffic. Second, the alignment of transit routes and the location of stops avoiding highly polluted areas where possible without affecting travel demand can also contribute to shorter perceived wait times…

The ability of the presence of trees to compensate for the negative effects of pollution and traffic suggests that planting trees or moving a problematic stop to take advantage of existing tree cover can significantly improve the user experience at a reasonable cost. This cost should be compared with other costs of measures able to enhance customer satisfaction such as higher frequency, transit information, and stop amenities.

As I’ve discussed more times that I care to count, public transit in Cleveland is in a crisis. Closing Public Square to buses exacerbates that issue, not only by imposing financial and logistical costs on GCRTA itself, but by making transit less desireable to users.

We spent $50 million in public and private financing to build a new Public Square that, by all regards, is a wonderful public space. Then our Mayor unilaterally decided to kick out the people who have historically used that space the most – bus riders. There is no longer any good argument to retain this status quo, and this study simply adds more weight to this conclusion. Bus riders deserve nice things too.

Don’t listen to NEOMG – closing Public Square to buses leads to more air pollution

public square bus protest
public square bus protest

Protestors, including Councilman Zack Reed, call for the opening of Public Square to buses on December 3 (courtesy of Cleveland Scene).

One can generally count on Advance Ohio/NEOMG/Cleveland.com/The Plain Dealer/whatever they are going by nowadays to defend vigorously the interests of the entrenched powers-that-be. This outcome particularly holds true when it comes to shiny, big ticket megaprojects.

Regardless of whether or not said megaprojects actually have merit, Cleveland’s largest media conglomerate and newspaper seems all too happy to eschew logic or internal consistency in their quest to carry the water for the region’s political and business elite.

One need look no further than their breathless coverage last week of the “transformation plan” for Quicken Loans Arena. Cleveland.com even created a helpful landing page for the proposal, complete with 13 separate stories. Erstwhile good journalists twisted themselves into knots trying to defend a plan that will cost taxpayers some $160 million over the next two decades to bring up to snuff an arena that just hosted the Republican National Convention, in the hopes of “boosting the city’s ability to attract major events, such as political conventions.” Check your logic at the city limits, folks.

With all of that in mind, it is really no surprise that NEOMG/the PD/whatever would happily defend Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson’s inexplicable decision to close Superior Avenue through Public Square to buses. A lot of ink and words have been spilled on this issue, and I’m not here to relitigate this fight. Instead, I just want to focus on a relatively narrow issue.

Two weeks ago, just days after a contentious City Council hearing on the issue, the PD published an editorial that dutifully parroted the Jackson administration’s talking points on the subject, right down to the hyperbolic fear-mongering about terrorist acts and bus drivers mowing down children in the street.

Putting aside those claims for a minute [which, honestly, we shouldn’t, because hoo boy], there was one particular part that really caught my attention,

Public squares were designed in a quieter time before terrorist considerations and wheezing block-long buses were prevalent.

When I read that sentence, I think my eyes damn near rolled out of my head and onto the floor.

Forget the absurd claim that “public squares were designed in a quieter time before terrorist considerations,” which is, obviously, insanely ahistorical. One can easily date terrorism back the first century CE, and the word itself has its origins in Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, which took place two years before Moses Cleaveland even established this city.

Leave aside the assertion that GCRTA employs “block-long buses,” which is preposterous. The average block in downtown Cleveland is roughly 500-600 feet long. GCRTA’s longest buses are…not.

About those “wheezing” buses…

But that’s still not what I want to talk about. While you may want an analysis of the merits – or lack thereof – of the arguments put forward by the administration and its water carriers at 1801 Superior Avenue, I gotta be me. And, as Area Air Quality Nerd, I cannot get past the “wheezing” part of that ludicrous sentence.

Read literally, the PD’s editorial board argues that allowing GCRTA buses to use the dedicated bus lanes on Superior Avenue through Public Square would allow them to belch out diesel exhaust, fouling air quality and damaging the lungs of passersby.

Except that is prima facie absurd. Perhaps the members of the editorial board don’t quite understand how mobile emissions work, but that isn’t it. On the contrary, forcing buses to travel around, rather than through, the Square should produce more emissions, as the buses are forced to drive farther and sit in traffic as they compete for road space with other vehicles. But how much?

Fortunately, I do this sort of thing for a living, so I can estimate the additional bus emissions associated with closing Superior Avenue through Public Square to buses.

The method to my madness

Let me briefly lay out my methodology. According to GCRTA data, roughly 1,445 buses drive through/around Public Square on a daily basis. Because those buses are not able to access their dedicated lanes on Superior Avenue, they are forced to transit another 0.1 miles around East Roadway/West Roadway/Rockwell, adding some 52,754.5 miles per year. Additionally, because the buses are now in traffic, they must travel at reduced speeds and idle as they wait to get back on Superior Avenue.

Below, I lay out the additional emissions that result from closing the Superior Avenue bus lanes through Public Square. In one scenario, I assume each bus trip is delayed by 2 minutes – the lower estimate which the administration provided at the Council hearing. In a second scenario, I assume each bus trip is delayed by 4 minutes, which, while double the administration’s estimates, is still below observed delays of 6 to 10 minutes from GCRTA riders. The former scenario leads to 17,851 idling hours per year, while the latter adds up to 35,162 hours.

I utilized MOVES2014a, the most recent version of the U.S. EPA’s mobile emissions modeling software, to develop emissions factors per mile and for each additional hour of idling for the GCRTA bus fleet. I then converted total emissions into additional metric tons per year. The results are shown below.

additional emissions public square

Additional emissions from closing Superior Avenue through Public Square to buses (authors estimates using MOVES2014a).

Closing Superior generates more emissions

As you can see, the additional distance the buses must travel (0.1 miles per trip), leads to de minimis emissions. But when you add in the idling emissions, those numbers climb significantly. Carbon monoxide (CO) emissions total 0.71 and 1.13 tons, respectively, based 2- and 4-minute delays, while nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions total 1.96 and 3.16 tons, respectively. Closing the Square also leads to an additional 535.98 and 860.96 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per year for each scenario, respectively.

And those emissions have real costs

On the whole, these are not particularly eye-popping numbers. But they do carry real costs and consequences. When the City of Cleveland and GCRTA initially sought federal funding for the Healthline BRT project in 2001, they estimated the emissions savings the project would generate. As the table below shows, the additional emissions from closing the Square to buses nullifies a portion of those emissions.

costs from additional public square emissions

Costs associated with additional emissions from closing Superior Avenue through Public Square to buses (authors estimates).

The additional CO emissions only takes away slightly more than 1% of the estimated savings; that said, vehicle CO emissions have plummeted nationwide since that point due to new vehicle emissions controls, so that’s not surprising. But the additional NOemissions could wipe away almost half the estimated savings under a 4-minute delay scenario.

These extra emissions carry real social costs. I have also estimate the social costs of the additional emissions, using damage estimates from the Federal Highway Administration. Again, the numbers are not staggering, but they do amount to tens of thousands of dollars in additional social costs tied solely to the Mayor’s decision to close a 600-foot piece of road.

Don’t forget those unknown unknowns

Furthermore, I cannot calculate any additional emissions that may result from the ripple effects of this ill-conceived decision. GCRTA has already cut more bus revenue miles than any other major transit agency, and it recently enacted a two-step fare increase. Add to that a potentially catastrophic budget hit from the loss of sales tax revenues on managed care organizations, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Tacking on another $1.6 million in operating expenses and increasing delays will make the experience worse for riders, possibly driving those who can afford it off the bus and into private cars. Given that GCRTA buses release 19% fewer average emissions per passenger mile than single-occupant vehicles (320 grams vs. 396 grams of CO2e, per my estimates), this outcome would just add even more emissions.

So while I expected the PD to support the Jackson administration’s choice, they should tread more carefully when it comes to verifiably inaccurate statements. There are no block-long buses hurtling through Public Square, belching out emissions. Just the opposite, in fact.

Employers play a major role in shaping commuting behavior

miami rush hour traffic
miami rush hour traffic

Rush hour traffic along I-95 in Miami (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

For sustainable transportation advocates, changing people’s commuting behaviors can seem like our white whale.

While commutes account for just 19% of total personal trips in the US, they play an outsized role in our transportation system, accounting for 27.8% of total vehicle miles traveled (VMT).

Their timing is also critical. The concept of rush hour revolves around our commute patterns. In cities like Washington, DC and Los Angeles, rush hour congestion can make life hell commuters, costing them time, money, and sanity. But in cities that are not growing and have no real congestion issues normally, these rush hour periods are particularly important.

For a city like Cleveland, commuting patterns directly influence the transportation infrastructure we end up with. The influx of drivers heading to and from work each day provides justification to expand our already overbuilt road system, which has serious impacts on development patterns, travel choices, and mobile emissions. If we could smooth these demand spikes by reducing the number of single-occupant vehicles (SOVs) on the road, we could potentially upend this vicious cycle, which justifies the continued addition of freeway lane miles to the system.

Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that we’ve made little, if any ground in this area. In 1960, the Census Bureau reported that 64% of Americans drove to work; they did not differentiate between driving alone and carpooling at the time. Another 12.1% of commuters used public transit, while just under 10% walked. By 1980, thanks to OPEC oil embargo, 19.7% of Americans carpooled, and the drive alone number stayed at 64.4%, even as public transit use fell.

But by 2014, these trends had reversed; 76.3% of Americans drive alone to work, while just 5% take transit, and 3.4% walk or bike. To date, our efforts to get people to stop driving alone to work have failed spectacularly.

Commuting: What is the role of employers?

Part of the problem with these efforts is that we have focused far too much on the individual. Commute mode decisions are a two-way street (pun intended). They depend not only on the whims of the individual, but also on employers’ decisions. People don’t just decide to drive to work in a vacuum. Their universe of choices are shaped by a number of endogenous and exogenous factors, including things entirely in the control of their employers.

This thought really crossed my mind recently while I was reading an article on electric vehicles (EVs) by Christopher Mims in the Wall Street Journal. Mims noted the vital role that employers can play in normalizing EVs for their employees:

Placing charging stations at workplaces, where cars spend much of their time, will be uniquely powerful. When a workplace installs a charging station, employees are 20 times as likely to buy a vehicle with a plug, according to a survey from the U.S. Department of Energy.

In light of this fact, it’s important to consider what, precisely, employers can do to influence the commute patterns of their employees.

Earlier this year, the City of Cleveland Office of Sustainability and NOACA partnered together to launch what they called the Commuter Choice Challenge. The goal of the program is “encouraging Northeast Ohio organizations of all shapes and sizes to take action in sustainable transportation.”

While some people may scoff at the idea that we should reward organizations that provide pre-tax transit passes to their employees, there really are a number of steps employers can take to foster mode shift. Collectively, this effort to provide alternatives and enhance the efficiency of our transportation system is known as transportation demand management (TDM).

Changing jobs and the importance of signalling

One of the simplest things that an employer can do is to act as a knowledge broker and paragon for their employees. For most people, commuting is a habit – once people start driving to work everyday, it becomes very difficult to shake them out of it.

Because commuting is a habit, there are only so many potential points at which an intervention is likely to succeed. But habits become weaker when your personal circumstances change. This context tends to shift most abruptly after major life events, such as moving or changing jobs.

In a study published earlier this year, Ben Clark, Kiron Chatterjee, and Steve Melia from the University of the West of England explored how these life events affect people’s commutes. They found that, while one-fifth of all British commuters change their mode from one year to the next, car commuting is far stickier. Just 8.6% of car commuters changed away from driving, and the mean duration of their commute mode was 6.3 years, twice as long as those for public transit (3.0 years) or active transportation (3.2 years).

Targeting new hires can be a highly effective way to disrupt the stability of car commuting. The odds that a person will switch from driving to alternative modes increases 2.5-fold when people change jobs. This highlights the importance of providing new hires with comprehensive TDM options and information, not just a parking pass. Demonstrating from day one that your workplace acknowledges and supports non-SOV modes helps to normalize them for employees. Signalling is an important part of behavioral change.

Pull factors matter…

If employers wish to reduce their SOV share, they need to provide a suite of incentives to get them out of their cars. These pull factors can come in a variety of forms, from reduced health insurance premiums for people who use active transportation to subsidized transit passes.

Considerable evidence suggests that these sorts of TDM packages can go a long way. In a 2005 study, researchers from the U.S. EPA examined the impact of the Agency’s Best Workplaces for Commuters (BWC) program, which recognizes employers that encourage, educate, and incentivize their employees to try alternative commute modes.

The researchers compared the commute patterns among employees using the BWC programs to the average commuter in these same Census blocks. They then modeled the impacts of these commute patterns to see the associated reductions in gasoline use and mobile emissions. According to the authors:

The results of this survey indicate that where employers provide employees with incentives to commute by means other than driving alone, significant percentages of them take advantage of these benefits. Comprehensive benefits packages such as those enjoyed by commuters in the BWC group, with financial incentives, services (such as guaranteed ride home, carpool matching, etc.) and informational campaigns, appear to produce reductions of trips, VMT, pollutants, and fuel consumption of around 15 percent even under conservative assumptions.

Another 2012 paper from Virginia Tech professor Ralph Buehler found that providing bike parking, showers, and locker rooms increases the odds that employees will bike to work nearly 5-fold. Clearly pull factors, such as financial incentives and facilities investments, play a central role in this equation.

But push factors – especially parking – matter more

But, as with anything else, changing commute behaviors requires both push and pull factors. And the latter are particularly key, as the single most effective strategy that an employer can use to reduce SOV share is to remove parking subsidies.

In the US, some 95% of US commuters receive free parking at work. The provision of this benefit can increase the SOV rate for commutes by up to 50%.

UCLA professor Donald Shoup, the godfather of parking research, has explored the effects of curbing this parking subsidy. In a 2005 report, he outlined the benefits of implementing a parking cash out program, by which employers provide commuters with the option of receiving a cash incentive equal to their parking subsidy if they don’t drive alone to work. Such programs allow employees who really want to drive to work to continue getting discounted parking, but it also incentivizes alternatives for those who would rather try them.

Shoup’s research in California found that cash out programs can cut SOV share by 17%. A separate study from Daniel Hess, also of UCLA, concluded that by charging $6 per day for parking, Portland was able to cut its SOV share by 16%.

Getting parking right is even more important than these numbers show, however. The lure of free parking so strong that if an employer rolls out a TDM program but fails to price parking, the latter will simply crowd out the former. As Dr. Shoup put it, “Advocating ridesharing while offering free parking is like denouncing smoking while offering free cigarettes.”

A separate paper Buehler and his colleague Andrea Hamre explored this issue. Their research showed that providing free parking increases the share of commuters who drive alone, regardless of what other incentives the employer may provide. Without free parking, 75.9% of Washington, DC area commuters would drive alone. Free parking increases that share to an astounding 96.6%. Providing subsidized transit and incentives for active transportation, while also supplying free parking, only takes that SOV share down to 86.8%.

As the authors concluded, their research “suggests that benefit combinations that include free parking either overwhelm or render insignificant the positive effects of benefits for public transportation, walking, and cycling.”

Location, location, location

But even the most comprehensive TDM packages will struggle to overcome another factor that employers can control – their location.

Often times, sustainable transportation advocates focus on the negative effects of residential sprawl, but neglect workplace sprawl. Just as people in the US have spread farther and farther outward, so too have employers.

Consider Northeast Ohio. The region boasts five major employment hubs, like downtown Cleveland and University Circle. Yet, combined, these hubs only account for less than one-quarter of all jobs in the region. The rest are distributed broadly across the five counties.

This outcome poses a major challenge to TDM. Transit ceases to be viable when households and destinations are sprawled out. The same holds true for active transportation. No one is going to choose to walk 10 miles to work in an exurb without sidewalks.

The Clark, Chatterjee, and Melia study illustrates this clearly. If a worker’s commute increases from less than to more than two miles, the odds that s/he will switch from active commuting to driving increases 30-fold. The research seems to indicate that two miles is a key threshold; most people simply will not bike to work if their commute is longer than that.

According to the National Center for Transit Research, location may be the most important variable in the commute equation. No matter how strong the TDM package or how much the organization supports alternative modes, locating your office in the middle of an exurban office park locks in your employees’ commute options.

Ultimately, I think we have focused our attention too narrowly on the individual commuter for too long. Research has shown time and time again that the most effective TDM strategies target the employer first, as that is the critical leverage point.

Large institutions that claim to support sustainability need to back up their words through their actions when it comes to commute options. It’s not enough to simply post an annual sustainability report or get your buildings LEED certified if you subsidize parking and locate your office in exurbia. The transportation sector is now the largest source of carbon pollution in the US. It’s time for employers to act like it.

Fun with Cleveland bike lanes!

ontario bike lane after

I don’t even know where to begin with this one.

Earlier this summer, shortly before Republicans invaded Cleveland, the publicly-funded downtown Hilton Hotel opened to much fanfare and self-congratulatory praise. The hotel’s completion coincided with the repaving and restriping of Ontario Avenue – which runs adjacent to the structure – from St. Clair to Lakeside. The project included the addition restoration of an on-road, striped bike lane, the first and only one located in downtown Cleveland (unless you include the stretch on the north side of Superior from around West 6th to the Detroit-Superior Bridge, which, don’t).

Here’s what the lane is supposed to look like, courtesy of bike messenger and Twitter-er-er-er Dave Schalmo (@Courier429). You can see the valet parking signs conveniently placed in the middle of the lane, perhaps suggesting that the people at the Hilton weren’t too thrilled about the placement of said lane.

ontario bike lane before

The bike lane on Ontario Avenue along the Hilton Hotel (courtesy of Dave Schalmo).

Well, that was then. The below is now. I guess that someone decided downtown didn’t need that pesky bike lane any more, because Dave posted this picture earlier today:

ontario bike lane after

In Cleveland, we buffer our curbs and our valet parking zones (courtesy of Dave Schalmo).

But that wasn’t even the best part of all of this. No, for that, you have to check out the response from the Hilton’s official Twitter account:

hilton response ontario bike lane

Yes, painting over a bike lane magically turns it into 2 bike lanes! Also, down is up, and left is right (courtesy of @HiltonCleveland).

If I had to distill the Dadaist shitshow that is Cleveland’s transportation planning into one tweet, you better believe that’s the one.

Update: Yes, I think that the Hilton is trying to claim that, by adding sharrows to Ontario, the City has doubled the number of bike lanes. Of course, that’s nonsense. It painted over the actual bike lane and added the sharrow, which is not a bike lane. Where I’m from, (1 – 1) x 0 = 0, not 2.

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.

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.”