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.

Does sprawl make the urban heat island effect worse?

urban heat island effect by city
urban heat island effect by city

Cleveland experiences the fourth strongest urban heat island effect in the United States. Could our sprawling development patterns be to blame? (courtesy of Debbage and Shepherd, 2015).

A few weeks ago, NASA officially announced that the record-breaking, “Godzilla” El Niño event that dominated much of our weather over the past year plus had finally come to an end.

But while the monster has returned to its hibernation deep below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, its impacts have already been and will continue to be felt across the United States. Around the same time that it made this announcement, NASA also revealed that April and May were the warmest such months on record in the US, meaning that every month since October 2015 has broken the existing record for that month. This eight-month streak of heat is, obviously, unprecedented. To date, the average temperature in 2016 is 1.9°F (1.08°C) above the average for the 20th century, making it a full 0.43°F (0.24°C) above the mark for the first five months of 2015.

You remember 2015, right? The warmest year on record? Well, not for long. NASA scientists are already more than 99% certain that 2016 will break that record, just as 2015 had claimed the mantle from 2014.

The impacts of 2016’s extreme heat

The extreme heat is having clear effects. It is contributing to wildfires consuming wide swathes of the West. Ozone levels are higher than normal across the country, as high temperatures foster the development of harmful, ground-level ozone more readily. So far, Greater Cleveland has already experienced six days when ozone levels exceed 70 parts per billion (ppb), the most at this point since 2012.

But the most acute impact of high temperatures heat-related mortality, a subject that I’ve written about considerably. Extreme heat is the deadliest type of disaster in the US, killing more people than hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and lightning strikes combined each year. As I’ve discussed in the past, climate change is only exacerbating this issue; the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) noted that the global death toll from extreme heat rose by around 2,300% from 2000-2010, compared to the previous decade.

change in disaster deaths by decade

The change in the number of deaths, by disaster, from 1991-2000 to 2001-2010 (courtesy of WMO).

Nearly all regions have seen a spike in dangerous heat, but the risk of heat-related mortality is not distributed evenly. While an individual’s vulnerability to extreme heat is the function of a number of factors, one of these is where s/he lives. Generally speaking, those of us living in cities are at greater risk due to the so-called urban heat island (UHI) effect. I won’t go too far into the science behind the UHI effect; suffice it to say that the combination of dark surfaces, a lack of urban trees, and the production of waste heat from various sources like air conditioners increases the temperature of cities, relative to rural areas. According to the U.S. EPA, the temperature of a large city can be more than 20°F higher than surrounding rural areas under the right (or wrong?) conditions.

Last September, Forbes published an article examining the scale of the UHI in various cities throughout the US. Strikingly, it included a map (see above) stating that Cleveland has the fourth strongest UHI effect in the country. Now, if you’re one of the literally tens of people who has inexplicably read something I’ve posted on this site, you may be familiar with my general dislike of sprawl. I’ve discussed research linking it to population decline, limited social mobility, climate change, and poor air quality, among other things.

So, I wondered, could Cleveland’s strong UHI effect be the result of our development pattern? Given that sprawl affects so many important phenomena, it seems reasonable to assume it would have an effect on UHI, right? To the peer-reviewed literature! [Cue 1970s Batman transition music].

Is suburban sprawl actually linked to the urban heat island effect?

At first glance, it may seem odd to posit that suburban sprawl would play a role here; the phenomenon is called the urban heat island effect, after all. But a handful of studies strongly suggest that sprawling development patterns do, in fact, exacerbate the UHI effect.

Two of the most convincing papers come from Brian Stone, Jr., a professor at the Georgia Tech School of City and Regional Planning and an expert on urban environmental planning and climate change.

In a 2006 study (paywalled) that he coauthored with Jon Norman from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Stone examined the link between land use patterns and the UHI effect in Atlanta. The researchers broke properties into groups based on four variables: extent of impervious surfaces, lawn and landscaping, tree canopy, and the number of bedrooms per residential structure. This categorization enabled them to study the magnitude of surface warming produced by property type.

Stone and Norman concluded that the size of residential lots – in other words, residential density – was closely tied to black body flux, a measure of surface warming. As one moves from the highest density lot type to the lowest density, the amount of surface heat released increased 6-fold. Other land use features closed tied to suburban and exurban development – namely large lawns – also exacerbate the UHI effect. A one unit increase in the area of a plot covered by lawn and landscaping increases the net black body flux by 0.51 units.

As the authors conclude,

The results of this analysis provide compelling evidence that the size and material composition of single-family residential parcels is significantly related to the magnitude of surface warming in the Atlanta study region. Specifically, smaller, higher density parcels were found to be associated with a lower net black body flux than larger, lower density parcels…

[The] results of this study support the hypothesis that lower density, dispersed patterns of urban residential development contribute more surface energy to regional heat island formation than do higher density, compact forms.

Connecting sprawl and the UHI across cities

On its own, one study does not prove the relationship. Fortunately, Stone followed up with a 2010 paper that he co-wrote with Jeremy Hess and Howard Frumkin of the University of Washington, which studied the connection between urban sprawl and the number of extreme heat events (EHEs) in 53 cities from 1956-2005.

To measure the relationship, they took the correlation between the mean annual change in the number of EHEs from 1956-2005 and the sprawl ranking for each of the cities in 2000. Whereas the most compact cities experienced 5.6 more extreme heat days in 2005 than in 1956, that number was 14.8 for the most sprawling cities. In other words,

The most sprawling cities experienced a rate of increase in EHEs that was more than double that of the most the most compact cities…These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that urban sprawl contributes to EHE frequency.

Exploring some competing research

Now, I should note that there is other research that does not jibe with Stone’s work. Last year, Neil Debbage and Marshall Shepherd of the University of Georgia took another look at urban form and the urban heat island effect. Using a different measure for UHI (the difference in average rural and urban temperatures) and a different measure for urban form (an index measuring various variables of city shape, contiguity, and land uses), Debbage and Shepherd studied the degree to which city configuration affected urban heat in the 50 largest US metro areas from 2001-2010.

Contrary to Stone, Debbage and Marshall found that both more compact and more sprawling cities experience a stronger UHI effect, provided they are highly contiguous. That is, the contiguity of urban form may matter more than its composition; designing cities so that they are made up of either cul-de-sacs or skyscrapers as far as the eye can see makes them more vulnerable to extreme heat. According to the authors,

A ten percentage point increase in the spatial contiguity of high-intensity urban development, the equivalent of shifting roughly from Orlando to Seattle, was predicted to enhance a city’s average UHI intensity by 0.4°C…[In turn] a ten percentage point increase [in low-intensity urban development] was predicted to enhance a city’s annual average UHI intensity by 0.3°C. Therefore, as suggested by the bivariate analysis, both low and high-density urban land uses appear to amplify the UHI effect if they are high contiguous.

Importantly, Debbage and Marshall note that, while compact development may not solve the UHI on its own, it does provide a litany of other benefits, from improved air quality to better public health. Accordingly, urban planners may want to promote less contiguous, higher density urban development by designing networks of smaller green spaces, expanding the urban tree canopy, and installing white and green roofs throughout cities. A 2014 study by Stone and colleagues found that implementing these types of policies can offset projected increases in heat-related mortality due to climate change by anywhere from 40-99%.

Wait, so does sprawl make the UHI effect worse?

So what can we take away from all of this?

First, yes – the evidence does suggest that sprawl exacerbates urban heat islands. Low-density, suburban-style development increases the amount of impervious surfaces, which raises lowers the surface albedo of urban areas. It also increases the amount of excess waste heat that cities produce, as larger houses require more energy. And sprawl typically leads to forest clearance for development, reducing the extent of the urban tree canopy. All told, these factors increase the amount of heat cities generate, and they prevent this additional heat from dissipating rapidly at the urban fringe.

Second, the fact that sprawling development patterns are not the only type urban form that increases the UHI effect may not be as relevant as it may seem. While dense urban areas may also promote UHIs, they also make it easier to address both the causes and effects of heat-related mortality risks. Residents of dense cities produce fewer carbon emissions per capita, mitigating climate change. And the economies of scale in these dense neighborhoods increases the efficacy of mitigating extreme heat; opening a cooling station or installing shade trees are more effective in these areas, for instance.

All told, we can add the urban heat island effect to the list of social problems that sprawl makes worse. Maybe we should rename it the (sub)urban heat island effect?

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.

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

rta healthline buses
rta healthline buses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can’t depend on Ohio to fund transit

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

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

gcrta sales tax revenue

Sales tax revenue by year (courtesy of GCRTA).

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

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

Cleveland already has a parking tax, but…

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

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

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

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

Taxing parking lots by surface area instead

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

plug-in hybrid prius
plug-in hybrid prius

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

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

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

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

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

Comparing fuel economy to land use planning

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

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

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

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

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

Evidence from outside California

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

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

ghg savings from different scenarios

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

 

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

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

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

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

Water is life, but have you ever thought about what that really means?

Cross-posted from Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.

 

World Water Day 2015 is coming up this Sunday, March 22. This year, in advance of this September’s UN summit to create a set of Sustainable Development Goals, World Water Day will focus on the links between water and sustainable development.

The axiom that “water is life” has become something of a cliche. But have you ever actually sat down and considered, even for a few moments, just how central water is to essentially every aspect of your life? Let’s consider a hypothetical day to demonstrate this effect, shall we?

Morning

7:00am: Your alarm clock goes off. You step out of your bed and head for the bathroom. About that bed – is it made from cotton? Well, cotton is one of the most water-intensive crops on the planet. It is the single largest consumer of water in the apparel industry, accounting for more than 40% of total water use. It takes more than 700 gallons to produce one t-shirt alone. Much of this impact stems from the fact that cotton is widely farmed in some of the driest areas of the world, including India, Pakistan, and Central Asia (we’ll return to this issue later).

7:05am: You step into the shower to get ready for the day. Well, this one is pretty straightforward. But do you know how much water and energy you’re using? According to the EPA’s WaterSense program, the standard showerhead uses 2.5 gallons of water per minute. As a result, the average American family uses 40 gallons of water per day in the shower, accounting for 17% of total household water use. If we waste roughly 20% of water in each shower, as the EPA estimates, that means we are washing more than 200 billion gallons of excess water down our drains each year.

7:30am: You sit down in the kitchen to eat breakfast. Do you drink coffee? Each cup of coffee has a water footprint of 37 gallons, meaning it takes the equivalent of 37 gallons of water to grow, process, roast, ship, and brew your morning caffeine fix. Are you eating cereal with milk? That requires 22 gallons of water. But it’s still better than eggs, which have a water footprint of 37 gallons each. And that morning glass of orange juice is another 53 gallons.

7:50am: You head out the door and start your morning commute. Are you driving? Well, it takes roughly 39,090 gallons of water to manufacture a new car and its four tires. How far is your commute? If you’re driving the average 12.6 miles each way in a car with average fuel economy (23.6 miles per gallon), then your gas tank is consuming 6.89 gallons of water on your way to work. Round trip, that will add up to 13.77 gallons (not to mention more than 19 pounds of carbon emissions).

Work Day

8:15am: You arrive at work and head into the building. But what is the building made of? Steel? That’s 62,000 gallons of water per ton used. Concrete? Try 1,360 gallons per ton. While the totals will vary by the type of materials used, there’s also water embedded in every window, square foot of flooring, gallon of paint on the walls, desk, chair, and trash can. Every step you take is dripping in water.

9:07am: You check your email and start answering the flood of requests that came in since you left work yesterday. Are you using a desktop computer? It probably took around 42,000 gallons of water to produce. A laptop fares better at around 10,500 gallons, given its more compact size. But let’s not forget that you need electricity to power that computer, along with your phone, desk lamp, and the building’s HVAC system. Where you live matters, as different energy sources have different water footprints. Here in Ohio, we get roughly two-thirds of our electricity from coal, along with 15% from natural gas generation, and another 12% from nuclear power plants. Every kilowatt hour of electricity produced from these three fuel sources requires 7.14 gallons, 2.99 gallons, and 1.51 gallons of water, respectively. Assuming that the average Ohio household uses 750 kWh of electricity per month, that means that your electricity use will consume 4,170 gallons per month, or nearly 140 gallons of water per day.

10:12am: You’re eventually going to need to use the restroom. The average toilet requires around 3.5 gallons per flush. And don’t forget to wash your hands, which may take up to 5 gallons per minute, depending on the faucet.

12:00pm: Lunch time. Maybe you’re a carnivore and have a hamburger; that will take a whopping 634 gallons. Or perhaps you’re eating healthy these days and opt for a salad, which has a considerably smaller footprint (31 gallons).

2:53pm: Hitting that mid-afternoon lull? You run out to the nearest coffee shop and grab a latte. All that extra milk and sugar adds water to the coffee, requiring a total of 52 gallons.

Evening

5:00pm: Finally, the work day comes to an end. Are you going straight home? If so, don’t forget about the water you’ll use on your commute. Or do you meet some coworkers for a drink afterwards? Choose carefully. That pint of beer requires 20 gallons of water. Wine fares even worse at 31 gallons.

6:00pm: Dinner time. Every pound of beef demands nearly 2,000 gallons of water. And that baked potato will add another 34 gallons per pound. Thinking about dessert? Chocolate will cost you an incredible 2,061 gallons per pound (though I doubt you’re eating that much chocolate in one sitting).

7:45pm: You head to the laundry room to do a load of laundry. That standard, top-loading washing machine will use 40-45 gallons of water per load. Efficient, front-loading machines can halve that total.

11:00pm: You brush your teeth and head to bed. Hopefully you remembered to shut off that faucet, as Americans waste more than 1 trillion gallons of water each year from leaking sinks, toilets, and sprinkler systems.

Total

All told, the average American uses approximately 2,167 gallons of water per day, more than double the global average of 1,056 gallons. But because most of this water is embedded in the manufacture and transport of the products we consume, we rarely, if ever, consider the true scale of our water footprint. Instead, we tend to focus on just the amount of water we actually use each day (i.e the amount of we drink or use to shower, flush the toilet, brush our teeth etc.). This number – roughly 90-100 gallons per person, per day – is a (pun intended) drop in the bucket of our total footprint. And Americans tend to vastly underestimate even this number.

Unintended consequences

Clearly, there is a disconnect here, one that can have unintended consequences. It builds a wall of ignorance between our decisions and their downstream effects. Consider the Aral Sea, one example of how our actions can drastically alter the world around us.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union decided to turn the steppes of modern-day Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan into vast fields it cotton. In the 1960s, engineers constructed a vast network of dams, canals, and irrigation ditches to divert the water of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers and channel it to the world’s largest cotton plantations.

Until this point, all of the unused water in these rivers – the lifeblood of the dry region – flowed into the Aral Sea. Prior to this, the Aral Sea was the world’s fourth largest lake. It surface area spanned more than 25,500 square miles. Its average depth was 52 feet, though the water reached a depth of 223 feet at its lowest point. The sea supported a thriving fishing industry among the various communities located along its shore. More than 40,000 people fished its waters.

All of that changed. Once completed, this irrigation system captured more than 90% of the water flowing into the Aral. As the sea began to shrink, it grew ever shallower. This process facilitated surface evaporation, hastening the process. As the surface are constricted, the land formerly covered by several feet of water turned into a dry, salt-caked desert crust; this reflected the sun’s radiation, causing surface temperatures to rise and evaporation to speed up. Wetlands and other aquatic vegetation dried up and died. The loss of these plants allowed stronger breezes to flow across the shallower water, which exacerbated surface evaporation even further.

Today, the Aral has lost more than 90% of its original volume. NASA reported last October that the entire eastern basin of the sea is now dry for the first time in at least six centuries. The Aral has entered a death spiral, and experts project that it may disappear forever in the next few years. It is, perhaps, the worst man-made environmental catastrophe of all time.

This is why Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc. exists. Our work, including our annual World Water Day events, seeks to reconnect people with water and illustrate the essential role it plays in every aspect of our lives. Hopefully by bringing people closer to water, we can stave off the next Aral Sea-type disaster before it is too late.

Watch: Find out why rivers change their courses in 3 minutes

cuyahoga river 1917 straighten
cuyahoga river 1917 straighten

A 1917 plan from the federal government to straighten the crooked Cuyahoga River (courtesy of Cleveland State University).

Rivers. They’re pretty amazing things. They provide humans with water for drinking, irrigation, and sanitation. They give us fish and other aquatic animals for food. They can be harnessed to power grind our grain, run our looms, and even power our cities. Their seasonal floods can bring rich silt to our fields or destruction and devastation to our lives. Sometimes, with just a little bit of help, they can even catch on fire. It’s no mistake that the first major human civilizations – Egypt, Mohenjo-Daro, Sumeria – developed along the banks of the world’s great rivers.

But rivers are much more than servants of (wo)man. They are dynamic ecosystems rich with biodiversity that shape and are shaped by the world around them. Any entity that can literally carve the Grand Canyon is pretty damn powerful.

And so rivers change. They top their banks, meander downstream, shift their paths. Sometimes, rivers even stop, turn around, and travel in the opposite direction. Rivers are not the static, shaped bodies that we encounter, but living, breathing systems.

It’s exactly this dynamism that humans don’t seem to like. We don’t like things that are beyond our control. We like to make things knowable, predictable, manageable. So we applied the logic of urban planning to one of the most complex systems in the world. We filled in urban rivers and sent them through channels and culverts. We built artificial banks out of concrete and steel to keep rivers contained. We constructed elaborate systems of dykes, dams, canals, and sluice gates so that we could regulate the seasonal pulses of the Mississippi and the Nile. We even dreamed up cockamamie schemes to make crooked rivers straight. These efforts to regulate rivers have created their own severe side effects – riverbank erosion, declining biodiversity, reduced silt delivery, sedimentation, and altered flood risks. We’re only beginning to face up to these unintended consequences.

So we know that, left to their own devices, rivers will constantly change. But have you ever wondered how and why? Well, wonder no more, thanks to this new video from Minute Earth. If you have three minutes to spare, you can learn a lot about fluid dynamics, fractals, and how muskrats decorate their dens.

(h/t Mental Floss UK)

Don’t blame it on the rain: On the root causes of Northeast Ohio’s flooding problems

Floodwaters submerged vehicles in the parking lot at Great Northern mall in North Olmsted on May 12 (courtesy of Cleveland.com).

“Après moi, le déluge” – King Louis XV (1710-1774)

Northeast Ohio has a flooding problem, as anyone affected by the severe storms last evening can attest. The region has experienced at least four major flooding events in the past few months, the most serious of which occurred five months ago on May 12, when torrential rains caused widespread flooding in several communities.

As the hydrographs below demonstrate, this severe deluge caused several rivers and streams to overflow their banks throughout the western and southern portions of Greater Cleveland. Flash floods also occurred in several areas; one raging flash flood nearly washed away a vehicle containing legendary meteorologist Dick Goddard, who apparently did not heed that famous National Weather Service saying: “turn around, don’t drown.”

This hydrograph displays the streamflow for three Northeast Ohio rivers – the Vermilion River (red), the Black Creek in Elyria (green), and the Rocky River in Berea (blue) – as measured by the US Geological Survey during May of this year. As you can clearly see, the streamflow in each of these rivers spiked drastically on May 12-13, due to the extreme precipitation during that period. Both the Vermilion and Black Rivers exceeded their respective flood stages (courtesy of USGS).

Who is to blame?

Since these floods occurred, people have been looking for answers or, in many cases, someone to blame. Those individuals whose property and piece of mind were damaged by the floodwaters have, in many cases, been understandably and justifiably upset, even angry. Many of these people have turned their anger at their municipal governments for failing, for one reason or another, to prevent the floods from occurring. This anger bubbled over in some instances, leading to highly contentious public meetings, such as the one in North Olmsted during which a resident got on stage to publicly rebuke officials and call for citizens to sue the city. Residents of other municipalities, including Olmsted Township and Strongsville, are also considering class action lawsuits, accusing their cities of negligence for not investing in adequate infrastructure upgrades.

City officials, for their part, have found a different scapegoat – the rain itself. And there can be no question that the rain in some areas in the past few months has been downright biblical. North Olmsted endured 4.44 inches of rain – more rain than it receives, on average, for the entire month of May – in a couple of hours on the 12th. Put another way, that amount of rain would be equivalent to roughly 44 inches of snow. Strongsville, in turn, saw 3.58 inches of rain that evening, just under its monthly average rainfall of 3.66 inches for May.* The following month, Cleveland suffered a similar fate. The 3.54 inches that fell on June 24 made it the fourth rainiest day for the city in the past century.

Yet, major rainfall events are not uncommon for Northeast Ohio during the summer months; in fact, they are the norm. On average, roughly 40% of the total precipitation in the Midwest each year falls during just 10 days; almost all of these days occur during the summer months, when high heat and humidity can lead to major convective storms. But, what is different is the frequency with which these types of flooding events are occurring. Residents in many of the affected communities have testified that they have experienced floods on a semi-regular basis over the past 10-15 years.

Don’t blame it on the rain…or the sewers

While it may be convenient to blame these floods on the rain, it’s not that simple. As the (handful of) people who have perused this blog in the past have no doubt grown tired of reading, there’s no such thing as a “natural” disaster. Rather, disaster risk is the combination of a natural hazard, our physical and economic exposure to the hazard, and our socioeconomic vulnerability. If 4 inches of rain falls in the middle of an uninhabited tract of some national park in Montana, it does not constitute a disaster. In a sense, for disasters, if a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to see it, it really doesn’t make a sound.

So, while it may make sense for people to blame inaction by public officials or the heavens for floods, these simply represent the proximate causes of the disaster. We cannot hope to address the real issue at hand by focusing simply on these; that is the equivalent of treating the symptoms of the illness. Rather, we need to focus on the root causes, which one can identify through this disaster risk lens.

Since I cannot readily or adequately examine the various facets of disaster vulnerability for every community affected by this summer’s floods, I want to focus instead on the other two components of the disaster risk triad – natural hazards and exposure. Increases in extreme precipitation events due to climate change and Northeast Ohio’s ongoing sprawl problem, respectively, account for much of the apparent spike in flooding events throughout the region over the past several years. I explore each of these below.

Natural hazard: Climate change and precipitation in Northeast Ohio

Logically, the more rain that falls over an area, particularly within a limited period of time, the higher the likelihood that a flood will occur. We already know that, based on simple physics, as global temperatures increase, the amount of moisture in the air should also rise. According to the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, the atmosphere’s capacity to hold water vapor increases roughly 7% for each 1ºC increase in atmospheric temperatures. This should lead to two general outcomes. First, it will take the atmosphere longer to reach its point of saturation, which may lengthen the periods between rain events for many areas, contributing to droughts. Conversely, because the amount of water vapor available for precipitation also rises, rainfall events should become more extreme in nature. As Dr. Kevin Trenberth put it in a 2007 study (PDF),

Hence, storms, whether individual thunderstorms, extratropical rain or snow storms, or tropical cyclones, supplied with increased moisture, produce more intense precipitation events. Such events are observed to be widely occurring, even where total precipitation is decreasing: ‘it never rains but it pours!’ This increases the risk of flooding.

We are already witnessing this intensification of rainfall in the US, particularly in the Midwest.  According to the latest National Climate Assessment (NCA), total precipitation has increased in the Midwest by 9% since 1991. Over the past century, certain parts of the region have seen precipitation totals climb by up to 20%. This increase is due largely to a spike in the frequency of extreme precipitation events. From 1958-2012, the amount of precipitation falling in very heavy downpour events jumped by 37% in the Midwest. This statistic helps to explain why, of the 12 instances in which Cleveland received more than 3 inches of rain in a day during the last century, 7 have occurred since 1994.

heavy downpours by region

One measure of heavy precipitation events is a two-day precipitation total that is exceeded on average only once in a 5-year period, also known as the once-in-five-year event. As this extreme precipitation index for 1901-2012 shows, the occurrence of such events has become much more common in recent decades. Changes are compared to the period 1901-1960, and do not include Alaska or Hawai‘i. (courtesy of Climate Central).

Unless we take action quickly to reduce our carbon emissions, this situation will only get worse in the coming decades. The NCA projects that, under a business as usual scenario (RCP 8.5), Ohio will see such extreme precipitation events four times more frequently by the end of the century.

extreme precipitation events projections

The increase in frequency of extreme daily precipitation events (a daily amount that now occurs once in 20 years) by the later part of this century (2081-2100) compared to the later part of last century (1981-2000) (courtesy of the National Climate Assessment).

Exposure: Sprawl and flooding in Northeast Ohio

I’ve also written extensively in the past about Northeast Ohio’s problems with sprawl-based development (see here for examples). As I wrote one year ago today,

Northeast Ohio has suffered from decades of sprawl and uncoordinated development patterns, leading to waves of suburbanization followed by exurbanization. In 1948, Cuyahoga County’s population stood at 1,389,532; just 26% of land in the county was developed at the time. Yet, by 2002, although the county’s population had grown by a mere .32% to 1,393,978, sprawl ensured that roughly 95% of the county’s land area had been developed.

cuyahoga county land use in 1948 & 2002

Changes in land use within Cuyahoga County from 1948 (left) to 2002 (right). Red shading indicates developed land, while the beige indicates land that is still undeveloped. The maps clearly demonstrate the decentralization of the county over the last six decades (courtesy of the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission).

We’ve come a long way since 2002. The heyday of sprawl appears to be on its last legs, as the combined effects of the Great Recession, the rise of the Millennial generation, and the gradual retirement of the Baby Boomers has led to a resurgence in the number of people living in walkable urban areas. Multiple sources have proclaimed the end of sprawl; this trend even appears to be taking root in Atlanta.

Cleveland has tried to position itself to follow this emerging trend. The city was recently ranked 10th most walkable among the largest 30 metro areas, enjoys a 98.3% residential occupancy rate downtown, has unveiled a plan to double the amount of bike routes in the city by the end 2017, and has seen a rise in transit-oriented development.

Given all of these positive indicators, why would I suggest that sprawl has increased the frequency and intensity of floods over the past decade-plus? Well, simply put, because it has. While it’s impossible for one to  deny all of these positive indicators, one also cannot ignore the facts.

In its Measuring Sprawl 2014 report, Smart Growth American ranked Cleveland 153 of 221 metros on its sprawl index. The median score was 100; cities with scores over 100 were more compact, while those with scores less than 100 were more sprawling. Cleveland scored an 85.62 (PDF), placing it below other regional metros, including Detroit (12th), Milwaukee (15th), Chicago (26th), Akron (111th), Dayton (116th), Toledo (117th), Pittsburgh (132nd), and Columbus (138). Cleveland does outperform some other nearby metros, including Indianapolis (158th), Cincinnati (166th), and Youngstown (175th).

Moreover, a recent study out of the University of Utah suggests that from 2000-2010, the Cleveland metro area became even more sprawling (PDF). Using Smart Growth America’s sprawl index, the authors examined the rate of change for the 162 largest metro areas (paywalled) during this period. While Akron actually became 2.7% more compact, Cleveland sprawled by another 13.3%, the 10th worst change of any metro area. Though the city’s number improved since 2010, our 85.62 in 2014 is still lower than the 86.01 that we had 14 years ago.

So why does this all matter for flooding? Well, simply put, areas that follow sprawl-based development models are more likely to suffer from flooding problems. Sprawl increases the percentage of land area that is covered with impervious surfaces, such as parking lots, roads, and driveways. As the extent of impervious surfaces rises, so too does the amount of precipitation that winds up as surface runoff during storms. Forested areas are excellent at controlling stormwater (PDF); trees enable 50% of precipitation to infiltrate the soil and allow another 40% to return to the atmosphere through evapotranspiration. Urbanized areas, in contrast, drastically reduce the amount of water that can infiltrate into the soil, guaranteeing that 35-55% of precipitation ends up as runoff.

As Hollis (1975) has shown, urbanization increases the incidence of small flooding events 10-fold (paywalled). Additionally, if 30% of the roads in an urban area are paved, major flood events with return periods of 100 years or more tend to double in magnitude. Northeast Ohio has more than 48,000 acres of impervious surfaces, equivalent to approximately one-third of the region’s land area. Accordingly, we fall directly into that danger zone for major flood events due, in large part, to our development patterns.

Secondly, because so much of the county is already developed, many new developments are being built in existing flood zones. In December 2010, FEMA released its first comprehensive flood zone maps for Northeast Ohio since the 1960s. Unsurprisingly, these maps show a dramatic increase in the number of people living in flood zone areas, due to the outward expansion of development. Thousands of people woke up one day to find out that they had been living in a flood zone, and they were none too happy to learn that they would now have to shoulder some of the cost of that decision by purchasing federal flood insurance. Interestingly, the gentleman who filed the class action lawsuit against Strongsville over the flooding lives in a housing development in one of these flood plains.

Lastly, sprawl directly contributes to climate change by leading to additional greenhouse gas emissions. Suburban areas account of 50% of the US’s total emissions, despite being home to less than half of the population. While households in downtown Cleveland produce just 26.5 tons of GHGs annually, that number skyrockets to 85.6 tons for Gates Mills residents. Because transportation accounts for such a high portion of the average family’s carbon footprint in this region, our sprawl problem has directly resulted in additional carbon pollution.

Conclusion

There is no question that flooding represents a real threat to the quality of life of people living in Northeast Ohio. Those individuals who have been directly affected by it have every right to be upset and to demand answers. Unfortunately, however, it appears that we are losing sight of the forest for the trees. Focusing exclusively on the proximate drivers of these floods may seem like a good idea, but it allows us to escape examining the real, underlying root causes. Until we step up and begin to shift our regional development patterns away from those centered on sprawl and rampant fossil fuel use, this flooding problem will only get worse.

 

*It’s worth noting that Strongsville is one of eight suburbs that have sued the Northeast Ohio Sewer District to fight the implementation of its stormwater management program. The case went before the Ohio Supreme Court on Tuesday. Obviously, this action runs directly counter to the city’s interests. While the stormwater management program will lead to an increase in rates, it is also the only chance we have to begin managing runoff as a region, which is essential not only for flood control but for improving our water quality and fighting harmful algae blooms. Additionally, a portion of the revenues from this fee would be made available for cleaning up after floods and helping to prevent future flooding. Perhaps that’s why, after the May 12 storms, North Royalton withdrew as one of the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case. This region desperately needs the investment that will come from this program, through Project Clean Lake, though I strongly encourage NEORSD to invest a greater portion of the program’s funds into green infrastructure, which is vital for controlling floods and filtering water.

Perception isn’t reality, reality is

Perhaps you have heard that a certain fellow named LeBron James has decided to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers basketballing organization. To take his talents to the North Coast, if you will.

Now, I had no plans to write about this episode, if for no other reason than I think my experience has been so very ordinary and in line with that of many Northeast Ohioans. I was ecstatic when the Cavs won the draft lottery in 2003 and kept LeBron here, and I was a huge fan throughout his seven years in the wine and gold. When he left for Miami in 2010, I was dejected and pissed. I openly cheered against him and found the Heat’s loss in the 2011 NBA Finals extremely cathartic. He had failed on the biggest stage, just like he couldn’t single handedly will a mediocre Cavs team to beat the best franchise of the last 15 years in the 2007 Finals. Suddenly all of those things that people said about him not performing in the clutch, which I vociferously denied for seven years, were instantly true. It was petty, and I reveled in it.

I thought I had moved beyond that crap after that series, but a certain level of resentment remained. I don’t know why. I started to get my hopes up last summer, when all of the local talking heads started speculating that LeBron could return this summer, though I was certain it would never happen. I mostly wanted the Heat to lose the Finals this year to see what might happen, and I was overjoyed when he announced he was coming back to Cleveland last week. I had slowly come to realize that he did what was best for him in 2010, both personally and professionally, and I couldn’t really fault him for that.

I also always knew that LeBron had a clear, intimate connection to this region, something which I’ve always respected. And he was probably the first person I’ve ever seen to bring national light to the strange, unproductive tension that simmers just below the surface between Cleveland and Akron. It’s an issue that I have become acutely aware of in my professional life over the past year. At this point, I just want to put all of this nonsense behind me and move on with my life.

So, like I said, my experience was completely unremarkable and not worth commenting upon. I also found much of the national media narrative as dull as it was predictable. LeBron acted as the bigger man to forgive and take back his jilted former lover. His return to this strange little corner of the universe that he inexplicably loves will bring a little light and validation into our otherwise dreary, unremarkable lives. Yawn.

What does irritate me are the posts from locals who attempt to present themselves as somehow above the fray, who seem to view this spectacle like an anthropologist observing some “primitive” tribe, confused as to how sports can actually matter to people. Then there are those who have tried to turn this story into a Christmas tree, hanging whatever their pet issue or cause may be on it like one more tacky ornament your mom bought at the Hallmark store in 1993.

The latest version of this came from an unexpected source, Jeopardy! champion and Cleveland-area transplant Arthur Chu, who has picked up on the argument that life in Cleveland is difficult, because we’re pessimists. As he writes at The Daily Beast,

It’s the reason well-meaning Cleveland PR reps can’t win when they try to throw up “positive messages” about the growing Cleveland tech market or the beautiful Metroparks or the local music scene against the image of Cleveland as one big decaying slum—that image is coming from Clevelanders.

Unsuprisingly, Richie Piiparinen, perhaps the most vocal advocate of this theory, praised the piece. Now, I generally have nothing against Arthur or Richie; both of them are obviously intelligent, thoughtful people (Arthur’s winning streak would suggest he’s a hell of a lot smarter than me), and I read their work with interest. But I take great umbrage with this line of reasoning. Richie had previously outlined it in a guest column for The Plain Dealer, writing

Cleveland’s negativity is a challenge to the city’s future.

…For Cleveland to change, it needs a critical mass of people who aren’t blinded by the city’s past failures. Whether they are newcomers, like our Texas friend, or folks who are pulled in by the prospects of a Rust Belt revitalization, the effects are the same: new voices and ideas that will help create a new reality.

…As a born and bred Rust Belter, you tend to get used to the narrative of decline. It’s oral tradition. The problem with that is when the social norm is to accept decline as fate, there’s less agency to help change your city’s destiny.

At best, this argument is a gross oversimplification of the real issues that we face as a region. Not to mention that it seems to suffer from some real analytical issues. If we are to assume that pessimism is the independent variable in this equation, and it leads to neglect, abandonment, and poverty, then we have to conclude that Cleveland’s pessimism is a completely exogenous variable; that is, we have to pretend it exists in a vacuum. Am I honestly supposed to believe that negative outlook is completely distinct from decades of population loss, shuttered factories, rising unemployment, a decade-long foreclosure crisis, and – yes – the added fact that our sports teams have endured 50 years of almost comical futility? It’s fallacious to argue that A lead to B, when we know that A has been inherently shaped by B.

At worst, this argument amounts to (as Arthur even admitted in his piece) victim blaming. It’s tantamount to telling a child growing up at East 79th & Grand Avenue, where the poverty rate is 79.1%, that all she needs to do is smile harder, and she can overcome her debilitating circumstances. Ignore the fact that poverty is expensive, that it lowers your IQ, that it increases your risk of suffering a chronic illness, that economic mobility has evaporated in the US and is nearly nonexistent in Cleveland. Just keep on the sunny side of life.

poverty e 79th & woodland

More than half of Cleveland’s children live in poverty. In this census block, located near East 79th & Woodland, an astonishing 87.1% of all households live below the poverty level (courtesy of The New York Times).

But it’s gauche to point out these problems in Cleveland. LeBron’s decision and the earlier selection of the city for the 2016 RNC prove that Cleveland is undergoing something of a renaissance. New businesses are opening; the city is getting positive press; certain neighborhoods are in-demand, driving up rental prices; we’re seeing an influx in younger, educated residents.

These positive developments have seemingly given rise to a new trend in Cleveland – the shameless boostering. There has been a clear shift in the past decade away from decrying the real and perceived issues in the region to relentlessly celebrating everything that is new and, therefore, good.

In a lot of ways, this trend isn’t entirely new; it’s actually an offshoot of our very real inferiority complex. The notion seems to be that we need to act as cheerleaders for every new project, idea, or business that pops up, no matter how impractical or pointless it appears. And don’t dare get caught questioning the practicality or utility of any of these projects; if you do, you’re the real problem.

Cleveland apparently exists in some strange metaphysical ecosystem where perception is reality. The inferiority complex is so deeply ingrained in our DNA that people are convinced that confronting our issues is more dangerous than ignoring them. The problem isn’t that we have actual problems, but that people always talk about them.

We’re told, time and time again, to stop bringing up our problems, because the real issue is that “the city is suffering from a marketing and recruitment strategy letdown.” I guess that this region works on the theory of quantum entanglement: if you observe a problem, it automatically becomes manifest.

But the idea that in order to truly love a city, you must never criticize it is ridiculous. That’s not love; that’s some childish infatuation. The people who espouse this argument don’t live in the real Cleveland. No, these boosters only focus on the part of Cleveland in which they reside or travel. Their infatuation with this tiny sliver of Cleveland amounts to little more than narcissism. It provides people with the ability to delude themselves into thinking they are single-handedly saving Cleveland every time they visit Market Garden or Fahrenheit.

I love microbreweries and food trucks as much as the next guy, but pretending that piling more of these into the confines of Ohio City and Detroit Shoreway will cure what ails us is preposterous. Cleveland is 77.7 square miles in area, not just the 4-5 square miles certain people frequent.

All of this is not to say that there aren’t good projects going on in Cleveland. There are. These include the Uptown development in University Circle, the Sustainable Cleveland 2019 initiative, and the new proposal to redevelop East 55th around St. Clair/Superior. And I am cautiously optimistic that these recent positive trends – yes, including LeBron’s return – may help add some additional momentum to the city’s slow rebirth. But they still represent a drop in a much larger bucket, and we have a lot of ground left to cover.

Unfortunately, too many Clevelanders seem to have convinced themselves that we can save this city by dancing around on the margins. But that’s never going to work. When you’re dealing with problems this big, you need systemic change. The first step in that process is to acknowledge that the problems exist in the first place, which is exactly what we’re not doing. The world is changing quickly; if you don’t keep moving, you’re bound to fall behind. But it’s even worse to stand still while continually reassuring yourself that you’re keeping pace.

In Cleveland, we’re told not to rock the boat, for you might get wet. Well, the boat has been sinking for more than 5 decades at this point. We can either get a little wet now, or we can all drown later.

Why transit makes headlines in DC but not Northeast Ohio

joe biden rta
joe biden rta

Vice President Joe Biden speaks in front of a GCRTA rapid car during his speech in Cleveland last week (source WCPN).

I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about Northeast Ohio’s transportation issues lately (there’s more where that came from), in part because it seems to be a key entry point into discussions about environmental and social issues in the region.

In the past, when I’ve tried to just engage with like-individuals over environmental issues, it has been a bit more difficult to break through. I’m beginning to think that this may be due to the fact that a lot of the traditional environmentalists in this region are older and less likely to engage through new media. The younger, more social media-savvy activists seem to have found transportation as their cause célèbre, given its salience to the region.

The politics of transportation in Northeast Ohio

Clearly, most of the horrors that have befallen this region – out-migration, urban decay, poverty, racial segregation, declining social capital, loss of status – can all find their roots, at least in part, in the sprawl-based development model that has predominated for the last 60-plus years. Transportation and the political economy around it has emerged as a microcosm of everything that is wrong with the power politics of the region. In my post on the sin tax, I quoted Erick Trickey’s description of how the issue reflected Northeast Ohio’s political fault lines:

The best way to understand most Cleveland political debates isn’t party politics. It’s, do you believe in spending tax money on “public-private partnerships” that draw people and business downtown? Or do you thinks that’s corporate welfare, giveaway of money better spent on other needs? That debate has run through our politics for decades, from tax abatement in the ’80s through Gateway in 1990 through the convention center debate in 2007, to the sin tax rematch yesterday.

Transportation battles in this region, particularly the Opportunity Corridor, shake out along these same lines. The powerful, moneyed interests like the Greater Cleveland Partnership come out in support of major highway projects, and dutiful politicians eventually fall in line. The interests of people living within the City of Cleveland (or Akron or Youngstown or Toledo or Canton…) and the surrounding inner-ring suburbs tend to be drowned out by those of people living in the outer-ring suburbs.

These latter individuals frequently seem to believe (and I apologize for being reductionist here) that they have a God-given right to speed through urban centers as quickly as possible. Despite the fact that the Cleveland-Akron metro area has more freeway miles per capita than all but three other metros and that congestion here is almost nonexistent, the answer always seems to be MOAR HIGHWAYS.

freeway miles per capita

Freeway miles per capita for the top 11 metro areas, as of 2007 (courtesy of next STL).

This rift seems to play out most clearly and acutely in the gulf between how we fund highways and how we fund transit. I’ve already discussed Ohio’s utter lack of interest and seeming repulsion towards funding public transportation in this state. But while I can understand (though not accept) the political and economic realities that produce that imbalance, I cannot understand the sheer indifference that seems to exist within the region towards it. How often does The Plain Dealer or the Columbus Dispatch report on this issue? To quote my classmate John Noel, “Where is the outrage?!”

Cleveland vs. Washington, DC

Compare the way that public transportation is covered here to DC. Not to pick on Adam Serwer here, but if you follow a DC-based journalist like him on Twitter, you’ve no doubt seen that person complain on multiple occasions about issues with the DC Metro (particularly the Red Line). There are multiple blogs and sites dedicated to complaining about WMATA with names that range from Unsuck DC Metro to the NSFW “How Fucked is Metro?” In DC, every delay or malfunctioning escalator (and there’s a lot) is potential fodder for the 6:00 p.m. news.

In Cleveland, you’ll hear a couple of groups and read a handful of blogs discussing the issue. And this is not intended to take away from the important work that groups like Ohioans for Transportation Choice are doing or the solid coverage from sites like Rust Wire and GreenCityBlueLake. But can you imagine people in Cleveland unleashing anything like the cluster bomb of outrage that detonated over road closures during the filming of Captain America about problems with the Rapid or HealthLine? I sure as hell can’t.

The devil is in the demographics

gcrta ridership by year

GCRTA ridership numbers from 1978-2010 (courtesy of Cleveland.com).

So what’s the difference? Well, not surprisingly, I would argue that it largely boils down to the demographics of transit riders in the respective regions. WMATA is a major, viable, primary source of transportation for many people in the DC metro area. WMATA riders compiled nearly 344 million trips in 2012 (PDF), roughly 942,383 per day. Greater Cleveland RTA, the largest transit agency in Ohio, had just 49.2 million total rides last year. At its peak in 1980, that number was 129,691,743. Thanks to the great exodus from our cities, transit ridership fell by two-thirds in just 30 years.

According to a 2010 report (PDF), the median income for Metrobus and Metrorail riders swas $68,110 and $103,800, respectively. Compare that to GCRTA and METRO Akron. In Akron 90% of METRO riders reported making less than $20,000*, while roughly half of GCRTA’s riders have incomes below $25,000.

Obviously this gap reflects the broader income disparity between Northeast Ohio and the DC metro area, but it is still striking. Everyone rides the Metro in DC, from homeless individuals up to and including US Senators. While it’s true that a large number of professionals commute to work on transit in Northeast Ohio, the demographics are clearly skewed.

metro akron household income

Source: METRO Akron (via Jason Segedy)

Moreover, transit riders in Northeast Ohio often have few alternatives. Roughly 90% of METRO riders do not have regular access to a vehicle, while 38% of GCRTA riders say they lack both a driver’s license and a car. Just 19% of Metrobus and an astonishing 2% of Metrorail riders reported living car-free. Lastly, transit users in Northeast Ohio are also far more likely to come from communities of color. Seventy-two percent of GCRTA riders are African-American; compare that to Metrorail, where 76% of riders were White.

This is why transit makes the headlines in DC and remains a peripheral issue, at best, in Northeast Ohio. It’s a lot easier to raise an issue when it directly affects people with agency, power, and a voice. That’s not the case here. People continue to turn a blind eye to the appalling lack of safety and amenities for transit here, because they can just drive past it. We obsess over whether or not turning the West Shoreway into a boulevard will add 60-90 seconds to our commutes, and our representatives locally and in Columbus parrot that view.

Until people here are exposed to transit, it will remain the Other. And no one is going to raise hell to get funding for that.

Jason Segedy provided me with a copy of the METRO RTA On-Board Survey from Fall 2013. All Akron data are from this survey.