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.

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.

If you want to improve air quality, end the sprawl

interchange los angeles
interchange los angeles

The I-10/I-110 Interchange in Los Angeles (courtesy of Politico).

For centuries, people have fled the supposed squalor of cities in pursuit of the fresh air that is so vital for our health and well-being. Before Louis Pasteur’s development of germ theory, most scientists and physicians subscribed to the belief that miasmas – essentially the foul smells associated with rotting organic matter – were the source of major diseases. The cure for illness, they argued, was for people to escape cities to get fresh country air.

Doctors prescribed fresh air as a treatment for various illnesses into the 20th century. American physicians encouraged their patients suffering from tuberculosis to head West in pursuit of the restorative benefits of the clean air. This movement helped foster the growth of many prominent Western cities, including Denver and Phoenix.

The clean air premium

Today, we tend to refer to the deleterious emissions that plague many cities by a different term: air pollution. But that same underlying precept – that we need to leave cities behind in the pursuit of fresh air and better health – remains.

Multiple studies demonstrate that people view air quality as an amenity and are willing to pay for it. According to economists Kennethy Chay and Michael Greenstone, reductions in particulate matter during the 1970s were “associated with a $45 billion aggregate increase in housing values,” while a separate study found that Americans were willing to pay $149–$185 for a one unit reduction in particulate matter levels.

Clearly, we place a premium on the concept of “fresh air.” But could our pursuit of this good actually be making air quality worse for others?

How might sprawl affect air quality?

The link between our sprawl-based development patterns and air pollution seems pretty obvious on the surface. The more we spread out, the more we have to drive to reach workplaces, schools, stores, entertainment venues, etc. All of this adds to vehicle miles traveled (VMT), and each additional mile we drive increases our mobile emissions.

But perhaps it’s not as simple as it seems. Moving people away from the worst polluters was clearly beneficial for public health. And pollution levels are typically higher in denser areas with high traffic volumes.

Additionally, one of the main targets of the landmark 1970 Clean Air Act Amendments (CAAA) was vehicle emissions. As a result, cars purchased today run more than 90% cleaner than those manufactured 46 years ago. This trend has helped to offset the rise in VMT. Thanks to these regulations, emissions of carbon monoxide and ground-level ozone have fallen by 85% and 33%, respectively, since 1980, while particulate matter emissions have declined by more than one-third since 1990. These improvements have occurred even as VMT has nearly trebled from 1.12 trillion when the 1970 CAAA was signed to just under 3.14 trillion last year.

annual vmt

Rolling 12-month change in vehicle miles traveled in the US (courtesy of St. Louis Federal Reserve).

With all of this in mind, I decided to comb through the literature to see what the best available science says on the relationship between sprawl and air pollution, and what I found may surprise you.

Just kidding, no it won’t.

Sprawl and air quality: The evidence

One of the first scholars to explore this relationship, in depth, was Brian Stone, Jr., who published his findings back in 2008. He probed the relationship between the number of days that ground-level ozone concentrations exceeded the EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) and sprawl index scores for 45 large cities from 1990 to 2002.

Stone, Jr. argued there are three major reasons that urban form could affect ozone levels. First, it can influence emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), the two pollutants that combine to form ground-level ozone. Secondly, sprawling cities are more prone to the urban heat island effect, which can increase the ambient temperatures in urban areas by more than 20°F; higher temperatures facilitate the formation of ozone. Thirdly, large, sprawling cities are more likely to have a broad ozone monitoring network, which may increase the odds that high ozone levels are observed.

The study found a strong, statistically significant link between urban form and air quality, even when controlling for weather conditions. According to Stone, Jr.’s results, a one standard deviation increase a city’s sprawl index score produced 5.6 more ozone exceedance days per year. In turn, a one standard deviation increase in population density – one of the four components of the sprawl index – was associated with 8 fewer exceedance days. Based on his findings, he notes that “urban form is significantly associated with both ozone precursor emissions and ozone exceedances…Overall, the most sprawling cities were found to experience over 60% more high ozone days than the most compact cities.”

To put that into perspective, Cleveland has a composite sprawl score of 85.62, meaning it is just over 14 units less compact than the average metro area. If it was as dense as Madison, Wisconsin (136.69) or Detroit (137.17), we would have had 11.2 fewer ozone exceedance days per year through 2002. Given that we averaged 20.5 exceedances per year from 1997-2002, this would represent a 55% reduction.

Strengthening the connection

Multiple subsequent studies support these findings. A 2013 article from Bradley Bereitschaft and Keith Debbage examined the connections between ozone and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) emissions and five separate sprawl indices. Each of the indices computed sprawl in a slightly different way, accounting for various measures of urban form. The authors folded these into two key measures – urban continuity (the degree to which the urban landscape is fragmented) and urban complexity (the degree of the “jaggedness” of the urban boundary).

The authors note that each of the sprawl indices produced a significant connection between sprawl and pollution levels. A one standard deviation increase in the most prominent sprawl index score was associated with 3.4% and 7.8% increases in ozone and PM2.5, respectively. The density of residential properties appears to be a particularly important correlate for air quality. Increasing residential density by one standard deviation lowers ozone and PM2.5 levels by 8% and 16%, respectively. This change in density can also lower on-road CO2 emissions by an average of 1.9 million tons. Using a social cost of carbon of $37 per ton, this produces social benefits of $70.3 million.

Bereitschaft and Debbage argue that “an increase in residential density might improve air quality and contribute to a reduction in per capita CO2 emissions at the metropolitan scale primarily by decreasing automotive dependency and tailpipe emissions.”

Additionally, the authors examined the connection between urban form and the direct emissions of NOx, VOCs, and PM2.5. Their results are striking. A one standard deviation rise in urban shape complexity increases PM2.5 emissions by 3,055 tons (12.4%) per year. Using EPA damage factors for on-road emissions, this additional pollution would cause 128 to 287 premature deaths and carry public health costs of up to $2.47 billion per year.

If more sprawl leads to worse air quality, will reversing that trend in Rust Belt cities lead to cleaner air? Stone, Jr. looked at this issue in a 2007 piece for the Joumal of the American Planning Association. He studied how shifting from a business as usual scenario to a more compact growth approach modeled on Portland could affect VMT and air quality in 11 Midwestern cities through 2050. By shifting from our current sprawl-heavy trajectory, Cleveland could lower household VMT by 9% and reduce emissions of CO, NOx, VOCs, and PM2.5 by anywhere from 7-9.2% each.

All the evidence points to one conclusion – sprawl is exacerbating air pollution. In our haste to find fresh air, we’ve simply made things worse for those who do not have the means to keep moving farther and farther out.

As Bereitschaft and Debbage put it, “Planning for density therefore becomes an issue of environmental justice, particularly at the metropolitan level. Simulations suggest that by relocating to peripheral suburban areas, residents might reduce their exposure to certain air pollutants…[while] simultaneously contributing to a decline in regional air quality by increasing the total volume of automotive traffic.”

I’ve argued before that, despite our poor air quality, almost no one in Greater Cleveland seems interested in talking about the issue and how we might solve it. Perhaps that’s because, unlike in the past, the real source of the problem isn’t just some large coal-fired power plant or steel mill. No, the problem is our individual driving habits. We’ve met the enemy, and it is us. Unless we face up to that fact, we aren’t going to change things for the better.

Our pursuit of the American Dream is undermining it

suburban cul de sacs
suburban cul de sacs

Cul de sacs as far as the eye can see (courtesy of Belt Magazine).

When I was in high school, a teacher once asked my class to use a word or term to describe the United States. A classmate of mine said it was “a meritocracy.” The teacher, who wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, wrote “Ameritocracy” on the chalkboard.

It was pretty funny — because words are hard — but it gets to a larger issue, albeit purely by chance. For most people, the US is so closely synonymous to meritocracy that they might as well be the same word. America is the land of opportunity; the American Dream claims that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can succeed and make a better life for your children.

One of the key vehicles by which to achieve the American Dream is home ownership. It’s the way most people set down roots and accumulate wealth. But what happens if the system we have developed to promote the vehicle (home ownership) undermines the goal itself?

Read the rest at Belt Magazine.

New images show how freeways tore apart Cleveland’s neighborhoods

Carnegie-Ontario 1951

Earlier this week, Chris Olsen of ESRI uploaded some amazing aerial maps of Cleveland into ArcGIS, which document the land use changes in the region over the past 65 years. As we all know, since 1950, while Cuyahoga County’s population declined from 1950 to the present, the remaining population has spread out throughout it and neighboring counties. As a result, whereas just 26% of the county’s land was developed in 1948, this number exploded to 98% by 2002.

One of the major factors contributing to this trend was the development of the interstate highway system, which began after the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. Accordingly, the aerial maps from 1951 provide us with a snapshot in time just after the City of Cleveland’s population reached its peak of 914,000 and just before the highway system helped usher in decades of population loss and decline.

But, beyond just aiding the movement of people out of the City of Cleveland and into the suburbs and – eventually – exurbs, these images demonstrate the extent to which the Interstate Highway System devastated wide swathes of the city. Whole neighborhoods were torn apart as homes and businesses were demolished to make way for freeways. It would take decades for many of the neighborhoods carved up by these freeways, such as Tremont, to stem the associated decline. Other neighborhoods, such as Slavic Village and Clark-Fulton, have yet to rebound. The images below display what some of these areas looked like in 1951 and how these same areas look today, six decades later.

Gateway District (Downtown)

This image displays the southern reaches of downtown Cleveland, including the eastern end of the Lorain-Carnegie (Hope Memorial) Bridge and what is now known as the Gateway District. While this portion of downtown was densely developed through 1951, the construction of the Interbelt beginning in 1954 radically altered the area. The replacement of the Interbelt Bridge, which has since become functionally obsolete, is still ongoing.

Campus District (Downtown)

These images document the changes in the Campus District around Cleveland State University. CSU, which did not exist until 1964, has taken over a significant portion of the eastern section of downtown in recent decades. But this area was also divided in two with the construction of Interstate 90.

Slavic Village/East 55th Street (Near East Side)

Further east, we find the area around Cleveland’s Industrial Flats and East 55th Street. This neighborhood has seen its fair share of ups and downs over the years. The railroad depot in the upper right-hand quadrant was formerly known as Kingsbury Run; this was the location of the infamous Cleveland Torso Murders of the 1930s that eventually ended Eliot Ness’ career in law enforcement.  This same railyard is now the primary rail hub for the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority. Ultimately, the images display the extent to which the construction of I-90 and, later, I-490, drove a massive wedge into this area. While the continuation of I-490 further east fortunately never materialized, the controversial Opportunity Corridor is essentially the reboot of this project.

Tremont/Industrial Flats (Near West Side)

Heading southwest across the Cuyahoga River, we find ourselves on the southern fringes of Tremont. Much like the areas around East 55th, Tremont has been broken into four sections by the junction of I-90/Interbelt and I-490. This newly trendy, gentrified neighborhood had historically been home to low-income, blue collar workers of various ethnic groups. When I-90 broke off the neighborhood off from Ohio City, located just to its northwest, Tremont entered into a decades-long decline.

Clark-Fulton/Stockyards (Near West Side)

Further southwest of Tremont is the Clark-Fulton neighborhood. This area, too, has historically been home to blue collar workers, hence its other moniker – the Stockyards neighborhood. The construction of I-71 and Ohio Route 176, which break apart in the upper right of the modern image (near the Alcoa plant) brought about the bulldozing of much of this neighborhood.

West Boulevard/Cudell (West Side)

Lastly, this image shows the change in area around West Boulevard/Cudell. This neighborhood has become notorious as the location where Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann killed 12-year old Tamir Rice. But if you drive down West Boulevard or West 98th Street, you can see that, decades ago, this area was home to upper middle class Clevelanders. Today, I-90 leaves a massive scar through the middle of the area, making large portions of the surrounding surface streets, like Lorain Avenue, extremely difficult and unpleasant to bike or walk across.

Ultimately, these aerial images provide a striking juxtaposition of two Clevelands: one at its economic zenith, the other struggling to emerge from its nadir. While the Interstate Highway System provided a lot of benefits to the United States that aided its post-war economic growth, these images really help us understand just how devastating that change was for cities like Cleveland.

Air pollution adds to a number of Cleveland’s ills. So why does no one talk about it?

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).

A few weeks ago, Rachel Dissell and Brie Zeltner from The Plain Dealer released their roughly 26-part series,Toxic Neglect,” which provided an incredible deep dive into the City of Cleveland’s chronic lead poisoning crisis. The series is truly outstanding journalism, something that is becoming increasingly rare in Northeast Ohio these days, and enough to max out your rage meter. If lines like “[Cleveland puts] more money into baiting for mosquitoes to curb West Nile virus and to prevent rabies in raccoons than we put into lead poisoning” and “national policy for decades has been to use primarily poor, minority children as household lead detectors” don’t enrage you, you don’t have a heart.

Dissell and Zeltner’s thorough investigation shines a light upon a major issue that is too often ignored in this region – the fact that at least 2,000 Cleveland children are poisoned by lead each year – and documents the City’s completely inability (desire?) to mitigate the crisis. They attempted to put a price tag on the problem, noting that lead reduces IQ and lifetime earnings potential, increasing healthcare costs, and contributes to violent crime in a city already plagued by them.

Dissell and Zeltner do an incredible job of displaying how the environment into which Cleveland children are born and in which they are raised irrevocably affects their futures. Their investigation centers on the city’s legacy of lead paint in its aged housing stock, the chief source of lead in the region. While airborne lead used to be an urban scourge, tetraethyl lead was finally phased out of all gasoline in the US in 1996. While much of that lead remains in our contaminated soils to this day, it is no longer the main culprit.

This series is just the latest in a string of great work from Zeltner, including earlier explorations of childhood asthma and infant mortality. But whereas it makes sense to minimize the role of air pollution in the lead series, this omission makes far less sense in the other two cases. We know that it is a important driver for both. But, for some reason, people in Northeast Ohio keep turning a blind eye to a problem that, quite literally, is all around them at all times.

It was with all of this in the back of my mind that I read a recent article in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives that examined the impacts of vehicle emissions on the cognitive development of children. The study, written by a group of public health professionals in the Boston area, focused on how exposure to pollution from traffic during late pregnancy and early childhood affects the brains of children later in life. The authors looked at the results of cognitive analyses for 1,109 children, aged 6-11 years old, who were part of an existing health study from 1999-2002. Because they tapped into this cohort, the authors had access to data on a number of variables, including household income, mother’s IQ, exposure to lead, and whether or not the mother smoked. Accordingly, they were able to control for each of these factors when conducting their analysis.

They split their sample into three main groups: those children living less than 50 meters from a major roadway, those living between 50 and 200 meters away, and those living more than 200 meters away. These distances are significant, as coarse and fine particulate matter rarely travels more than 10 to 100 meters in the air before settling back to the surface. This allowed them to examine how children growing up in close proximity to heavy daily automobile traffic would fair later in life. The results were stark:

Among children residing primarily in urban and suburban Eastern Massachusetts, prenatal residential proximity to major roadways (< 50 m) predicted lower nonverbal intelligence, verbal intelligence, and visual motor abilities in mid-childhood.

Those children living closest to heavily trafficked roads scored, on average, 7.5 points lower on nonverbal IQ tests, 3.8 points lower on verbal IQ tests, and 5.3 points lower on visual motor skills tests. In other words, the cognitive effects of growing up alongside a major roadway is comparable to an increase from the 5th percentile of childhood blood levels to the 95th percentile. In fact, at a 6.9 point decline in IQ from lead, the effects of traffic appear to be even greater.

Interestingly, the authors were unable to find a statistically significant effect of traffic-related air pollution on childhood IQ, perhaps because the effects of pollution were so tightly entangled with socioeconomic factors.

But the evidence does not stop there. In a 2008 study using another cohort of children from Boston, Suglia and colleagues looked at the connection between early childhood exposure to black carbon, a particularly harmful component of fine particulate matter, and cognitive function when children were 8 to 11 years old. They found that children exposed to high levels of traffic-related black carbon pollution saw their IQ scores fall by 3 points, even when controlling for socioeconomic variables, exposure to tobacco smoke, and blood lead levels. The authors noted that this IQ decrement was comparable to those experienced by children born to smokers (4 points) and by children poisoned by lead (1-5 points). Additionally, a separate 2011 study found a connection between prenatal exposure to traffic pollution and an elevated risk of childhood autism.

All told, mounting evidence suggests that children exposed to high levels of traffic-related pollution before and after birth are far more likely to have lower IQs and to suffer from developmental disorders. Just because we rarely see visible pollution like that from the mid-20th century these days does not mean that the problem is behind us.

It’s incredibly important for a city like Cleveland, which is struggling to break free from repeated cycles of poverty and abandonment, to come to grips with this reality fully, for two main reasons.

First, it may force us to recognize the consequences of our individual actions. Our driving habits are responsible for the majority of fine particulates and nitrogen oxide emissions in this region. We are part of the problem. Maybe the girl growing up on East 79th or West 98th is struggling in school, at least partly, because of the toxic environment into which she born. If we finally start to talk about this, perhaps we can make changes, even if just on the margins. Was driving half a mile to the store really worth aggravating her asthma? Was idling so you could run the AC while waiting to pick up your child worth the extra pollution you exposed him to?

Secondly, acknowledging these issues will force us to rethink our regional development choices. If we want to help improve the lives of low-income Clevelanders, should we really be, say, building a $331 million urban highway that will just bring more traffic, noise, pollution, and dislocation to communities that already have a surplus of them? Is that wisest use of our limited resources? Are we honestly going to help lift people out of poverty by exacerbating some of its causes?

We can’t drive our way out of a driving problem, and we can’t sprawl our way out of a sprawl problem. I don’t know if air pollution is topic that can bring all of this to the fore. Obviously I’m biased. But it’s also a ubiquitous problem in this region, and it plays a factor in a host of our pressing problems. It’s time to make it a permanent part of the conversation.

That ‘Cleveland rail shutdown’ looks more likely by the day

red line winter
red line winter

The aging infrastructure and rail cars on GCRTA’s Red Line have struggled to cope with the past two brutal winters in Cleveland (courtesy of YouTube).

WCPN has a story today from Nick Castele on the untenable fiscal position in which the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) finds itself. All Aboard Ohio, the rail advocacy organization, recently ran a post arguing that GCRTA’s rail cars are rapidly approaching the end of their useful life, and the system faces an “unavoidable” rail shutdown sometime after 2020 without a substantial infusion of capital.

Castele interviewed GCRTA’s General Manager Joe Calabrese, who confirmed much of All Abroad Ohio’s account, though the agency has sought to downplay the hysteria around the issue. According to Calabrese, GCRTA needs to raise $280 million in capital funds by 2025 to replace 65-70 of its aging rail cars. He emphasized that GCRTA “can’t get there alone. It’s going to take a more major investment.”

What Calabrese failed to discuss is what happens if that influx of funding doesn’t materialize. As I have discussed on a number of occasions, I’m not sure it would be possible for the State of Ohio to care less about public transit if it tried. The state provided just $7.3 million in general funds for transit in its latest budget, down 83.5% from 2000. So, at that rate, Ohio won’t scrape together $280 million for all transit funding throughout the entire state for another 38.4 years.

But that obviously doesn’t accurately reflect the state funding actually coming GCRTA’s way. In recent years, the state has broken transit funding into four main tranches: the Urban Transit Program, the Rural Transit Program, the Elderly and Disabled Transit Fare Assistance Program (E&D), and coordination grants (which it eliminated in 2009). Because Northeast Ohio is an urbanized area with a population well over 50,000, GCRTA receives funding from the Urban Transit Program. Given that it is the largest transit agency in the state, it receives the biggest chunk of urban transit funding (18%) each year. The agency used to receive E&D funding ($2.8 million per year in 2008-2009), but the state eliminated that funding for urban areas in 2009, reallocating it to rural agencies.

ohio transit funding 2000-2014

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

The only problem is that urban transit funding has evaporated in Ohio. For fiscal year 2016, GCRTA will receive $1,360,080 in funding through this program. If the agency devoted every penny of this allocation to procuring new rail cars, it would only take 206 years for it to save up $280 million. But, once again, this actually exaggerates Ohio’s support, as it includes federal funds. Urban transit funding from the state has, quite literally, fallen off a cliff since 2001. Whereas the 2000-2001 budget provided nearly $30 million in total funding for urban transit operators, that funding was halved in 2002 and has continued to dwindle to just $1.4 million by 2014. Given that GCRTA gets 18% of this funding, the state is really providing roughly $252,000 of its budget to fund transit in Northeast Ohio. Accordingly, if we wanted Ohio to foot the bill for this, GCRTA could expect to get its new rail cars running sometime in the year 3126.

It still seems a bit hyperbolic to claim that GCRTA’s light and heavy rail lines will inevitably shut down next decade. But, unless something changes dramatically at the Statehouse, the odds of that outcome increase each day.

Study estimates that Volkswagen’s ‘defeat devices’ caused 59 premature deaths in US

vw emissions test
vw emissions test

A Volkswagen Passat undergoes emissions testing (courtesy of John Stillwell/AP).

Since the EPA announced on September 18 that Volkswagen had installed “defeat devices” in its so-called clean diesel vehicles for model years 2008-2015, analysts have been attempting to quantify the public health costs of this single action. A range of outlets from The New York Times to the Associated Press to Mother Jones offered up their estimates. (My personal favorite came from Brad Plumer at Vox, though that’s probably because I pointed him to the EPA technical support document containing the mortality factors that he used for his calculations…) Each entity used a different methodology and came up with different numbers, demonstrating just how hard it is to tabulate the real world impacts of pollution.

Well, last week, a group of researchers from MIT and Harvard published the first peer-reviewed assessment of the public health effects of the diesel scandal in Environmental Research Letters. This study finally gives us a reasonable baseline against which we can measure the true impact of VW’s deception, and the results aren’t pretty. According to Steven Barrett and colleagues, the affected Volkswagen vehicles will  account for an estimated 40.5 billion vehicle kilometers traveled from the start of 2008 to the end of 2015. Using the emissions estimates from the Institute for Clean Transportation, the organization that caught the defeat device, these “clean” diesel cars released 36.7 million kilograms of excess nitrogen oxides (NOx). These emissions directly contributed to the development of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and ground-level ozone, both of which are clearly connected to premature mortality and a host of non-lethal health effects.

All told, from 2008 to the present, Barrett and colleagues estimate that VW’s defeat devices are responsible for roughly 59 premature deaths in the US. Additionally, the associated emissions led to 31 cases of chronic bronchitis, 34 hospital admissions for respiratory illness, and approximately 120,000 restricted activity days. Assuming that the statistical value of a human life is $8.5 million, the premature mortality attributable to VW’s actions totals around $450 million; this number does not include the social costs of morbidity.

Moreover, the authors acknowledged that the defeat devices remain on roads throughout the US. If they are not repaired in a timely fashion, the resulting excess emissions will likely cause an additional 140 premature deaths and public health costs of at least $910 million more. As The New York Times has noted, it may be extremely difficult for VW to get drivers to consent to the necessary repairs, as it may lower fuel economy and hurt performance. Fortunately, if VW was able to get each of the 482,000 affected vehicles in the country repaired adequately by the end of 2016, we could avoid 130 of the 140 anticipated deaths.

The aggregate costs of VW’s deception are truly astonishing. The authors estimates suggest that the excess NOx  emissions associated with the defeat devices made up 1% of total light duty vehicle emissions in 2015 alone. And, while it is true that the cars themselves are more deadly than what comes out of their tailpipes – the authors find the affected vehicles likely led to approximately 280 traffic fatalities – Barrett and colleagues explain that “the air pollution death rate from the excess NOx emissions is therefore ~20% of the accident fatality rate for an average US passenger car.”

Beyond putting a number on the social and public health costs of the VW emissions scandal, this study also represents the first time that anyone has attempted to illustrate the spatial distribution of the costs. As the map below shows, the excess NOx emissions were concentrated primarily in a handful of urban centers, including New York City, Washington, DC, Detroit, Atlanta, Denver, Houston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. (Unfortunately the study does not provide a way for readers to estimate the distribution of premature mortality by location, as the map’s data are not granular enough for such an analysis).

excess NOx emissions VW defeat device

Distribution of estimated actual excess VW light duty diesel vehicle NOx emissions from 2008 to 2015 (courtesy of Barrett et al.).

Overall, this study is important for two main reasons:

  • First, it largely validated the estimates presented in the mainstream media to this point. As the authors note, media outlets had concluded that the emissions scandal led to anywhere from 16 to 106 premature deaths in the US. This range lines up quite well with the study’s confidence interval of 9.7 to 150 deaths. That’s surprisingly good, given the vast array of uncertainties and variables involved.
  • Second, the fact that there is now a peer-reviewed study linking VW’s defeat devices to premature deaths will likely be important for pending litigation against the company. Expect to see a number of lawsuits cite this study in their case against VW going forward.

How VW forced drivers to ‘roll coal’ & what it tells us about the flaws in our emissions testing systems

rollin coal
rollin coal

Rollin’ coal (courtesy of Vocative).

Last summer, a few media outlets reported on a strange phenomenon that was on the rise in certain corners of the country. For whatever reason, a group of Good Ole’ Boys had decided that the best way to show how much they hated environmental regulations and loved fossil fuels was to alter their trucks’ exhaust systems to release massive amounts of black soot. This practice – called “rolling coal” – has inexplicably become highly popular in some communities; its official Facebook page has more than 18,000 followers.

For the coal rollers, tampering with the emissions controls on their trucks was a way to make their personal and political ideologies manifest. Never mind the fact that the exhaust they were spitting out is a known carcinogen. No, the coal rollers claim, the people who are on the receiving end of their soot cloud probably deserve to suffer the consequences because they have the audacity to walk, or ride a bike or, God forbid, drive a Prius. That this cloud of pollution could trigger a medical emergency for someone with a respiratory or cardiovascular condition didn’t matter, because pollution is freedom. Or something.

Fast forward to this week, when we found that Volkswagen had systematically been lying since 2009 about their supposedly “clean” diesel vehicles. When the company claimed that it had discovered a way to make its cars run on diesel, all while meeting US air quality standards, boosting fuel efficiency, and improving handling, people were thrilled. Nearly 500,000 Americans bought into the hype and purchased a clean diesel VW from 2009 to 2015. All told, there are around 11 million of these vehicles on roads globally.

Volkswagen and the inadvertent coal rollers

But, as we now know, VW sold these people a bill of goods. The company had installed a so-called “defeat device” in the vehicle software that allowed it to detect when regulators were conducting emissions testing. At this point, the car would trigger its emissions controls systems, allowing it to meet the standards set by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The rest of the time, the car knew to deactivate these controls, causing it to release 10 to 40 times more nitrogen oxides (NOx) than allowed by federal law. NOx are a family of harmful air pollutants formed by the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels. They can help form fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and are a key precursor to the formation of ground-level ozone.

Based on estimates from The Guardian, those 11 million affected vehicles may have released up to 948,691 additional tons of NOx than they would have if they complied with EPA standards. In the US, the 482,000 “clean” diesels on the road likely generated 2,700 to 11,600 tons of NOx. In effect, through its deliberate deception, VW forced its customers unknowingly to roll coal.

A number of observers have discussed the implications of this scandal, discussing, for instance, how efforts to make cars smarter and more internet compatible open them up for manipulation of this sort. But I want to focus on a different issue – how this episode provides an important insight into the the challenges inherent to the US’s vehicle emissions testing system.

Vehicle inspection & maintenance programs: A primer

As Americans began pushing their representatives to address the country’s air pollution crisis, environmental regulators developed ideas on how to tackle pollution from mobile sources. On the one hand, EPA developed a set of certification standards for all new vehicles sold in the country. The Agency developed a rigorous test – known as the Federal Testing Procedure (FTP) – to measure emissions from vehicles in operation. The FTP is highly complex, and largely involves running a car through various phases to simulate, among other things, driving on a freeway and driving in urban gridlock. If a vehicle manufacturer wants to sell its cars in the US, it needs to get EPA certification that it meets federal emissions standards.

federal test procedure

A graph showing the various components of EPA’s Federal Test Procedure for emissions testing (courtesy of US EPA).

But what happens once those vehicles are on the road? How can we make sure that they aren’t spewing out higher levels of pollution? And, if they are, how can we identify them and address this? That’s where vehicle inspection and maintenance (I/M) programs come into play. Congress first included language requiring vehicle I/M programs in areas with persistent air quality problems as part of the 1977 Clean Air Act Amendments (CAAA). Congress has amended these requirements since that point, most significantly as part of the 1990 CAAA. This bill required all areas designed as nonattainment for ozone standards to implement an I/M program. These programs typically required vehicle owners to bring in their vehicle annually or biennially and undergo some sort of tailpipe emissions test. These tests were generally a modified version of the FTP, such as the IM240, which lasts for 240 seconds.

For years, federal and state regulators promoted the benefits of vehicle I/M programs. EPA, in particular, reportedly considers it (see page 4-14) “one of the most important, if not the single most important, ozone control measure available to metropolitan areas.” According to the Agency, states that implemented its model I/M programs should see mobile emissions of hydrocarbons (HC), carbon monoxide (CO), and NOx  fall by 28%, 31%, and 9%, respectively. Given these numbers, I/M programs clearly appear to be a vital emissions control program, at least on the surface.

Challenges with vehicle I/M programs

But it’s when we get below the surface that things get murkier. As the VW case shows, technology exists to allow vehicle owners – or manufacturers – to actively cheat on emissions tests. But drivers don’t always need to have such malevolent intentions. As Dr. Donald Steadman, a prominent critic of I/M programs has noted, vehicle emissions can vary widely from one test to another – by an order of magnitude in some cases. Emissions also demonstrate a tendency to revert to the mean. In other words, a vehicle can exceed emissions standard on one day, but that same vehicle may dip below the standard on the next day, even in the absence of repairs. Drivers who failed the first test can pass the second through sheer dumb luck.

Even when drivers do get repairs to lower emissions, these repairs are often short-lived. If your goal is only to pass the test, you may seek out a low-cost repair to allow you to game the system. These repairs rarely last, ensuring that real world emissions may spike in the period between tests. And then there’s the drivers who simply choose to skip the test altogether. A number of states, including Ohio, require vehicle owners to pass an emissions test to register their vehicles. But some drivers bypass this option by registering the vehicle outside of the I/M program area or by selling it to someone who does. A 2009 investigation by The Akron-Beacon Journal found that 1 of every 5 vehicles that failed Ohio’s E-Check test in 2008 simply “disappeared.” Of these missing vehicles, nearly 20% ended up registered in counties directly adjacent to the E-Check area.

On-board diagnostics were supposed to fix the problem

These major issues with I/M programs led state and federal agencies to do a lot of soul searching in the 1990s. In an effort to address these challenges, EPA issued a rule in 2001 requiring all states with I/M programs to begin testing the vehicle’s on-board computers. These second generation on-board diagnostic systems, or OBDII, are installed on all cars model year 1996 or newer. OBDII systems are designed to sense issues with the vehicle’s emissions control systems and turn on an indicator light – the infamous check engine light – whenever issues with these components would lead to emissions that are 1.5 times higher than federal certification standards. For comparison’s sake, traditional tailpipe tests are set to fail vehicles whose emissions are 2-3 times higher than certification standards.

In theory, OBDII tests are great. Not only do they allow you to identify issues with emissions controls, they actually tell vehicle owners about them before their cars become major polluters. But, if you’re one of the 3 people who’ve made it this far, you may guess that OBDII tests aren’t a silver bullet either. On the one hand, because they are so restrictive, OBDII tests may fail vehicles that are marginal polluters and would have passed a tailpipe test. According to the National Research Council (pg. 99), up to 70% of all vehicles with an illuminated check engine light had emissions that fell below federal standards. This can push drivers, who are often lower-income, to make expensive repairs that do little to improve air quality. Additionally, OBDII tests may not be particularly reliable.  If a driver disconnects his/her battery before going to the testing center, the OBDII system will tell inspectors to run a tailpipe test instead. And at least one study suggests that, as ODBII systems age, they becoming more likely to malfunction. The odds that a vehicle would actually fail a tailpipe test but pass an OBDII test increases by 3.3% for each year it is on the road.

So what other options are available?

Ultimately, these facts demonstrate that the current vehicle I/M program faces a number of challenges that may compromise its effectiveness. So what options are available to address these shortcomings? One potential area for regulators to expand their efforts is the use of remote sensing device (RSD) technologies. Remote sensing, which has been around for vehicle emissions testing in some form or another for more than 20 years, allows regulators to measure a vehicle’s emissions while in operation in real world conditions. Rather than trying to simulate on-road driving, you bring the testing to the road. A number of states already utilize this technology in some capacity. Here in Ohio, the E-Check program employs RapidScreen vans, which measure a vehicle’s emissions as they drive by on the freeway. This approach can exempt a small group of very clean vehicles that complete 2 successful screenings within a 9-month period.

But RSD has the potential to be expanded further. The National Research Council found that RSD tests are able to identify “dirty” vehicles with a success rate of up to 96%. It’s telling that the International Council on Clean Transportation, the organization that exposed the VW defeat device, did so through the use of remote sensing devices while driving from San Diego to Seattle. RSD tests are also highly cost-effective (they cost less than $1 per test, on average) and can test a much larger number of vehicles in a shorter period of time. It’s worth noting that some prominent conservative and libertarian scholars, including Douglas Noonan and Daniel Klein, have been pushing to use RSD as part of emissions testing for years.

Observers have called for other alternative approaches. These include extending the required manufacturer’s warranty for vehicle emissions controls systems. Under the 1990 CAAA, all car manufacturers are required to provide 8-year/80,000 mile warranties for major emissions control systems, including the catalytic converter and OBDII. But that warranty is only 2 years/24,000 miles for other emissions components that can directly affect pollution levels. Extending component warranties to 200,000 miles would place the financial burden for controlling emissions back on the vehicle manufacturers and out of the hands of individual drivers. States could also follow California’s lead and provide repair subsidies to low-income vehicle owners. Dirty vehicles disproportionately end up in the hands of those people least able to afford expensive repairs. Providing them with financial support may incentivize them to get effective repairs to cut emissions. Perhaps the fines that EPA and the DOJ ultimately level on VW could help to finance the creation of this kind of program. Or these funds could go to finance alternative forms of transportation, such as to shore up underfunded public transit systems or improve bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

It’s nice to see that Volkswagen’s deception has sparked a conversation about the impact of mobile emissions on air quality. But it also provides an important insight into the challenges that environmental regulators face day in and day out. Hopefully this terrible episode can help bring about positive change by bringing attention to the issue and garnering support to fix the cracks in the existing system.