Transit alone cannot solve the systemic problems behind job inaccessibility

cleveland job sprawl 2000-2012
bus stop at route 237 & Eastland Road

An actual stop for the #86 bus alongside Route 237 in Cleveland (courtesy of Google Maps).

In my last post, I dug into the debate over which approach is better – bringing people to jobs or jobs to people – by examining case studies from San Francisco and Minneapolis-St. Paul. But, as I noted, the studies I examined assume that the relationship between transit and job accessibility occurs in a vacuum. Things are not that clean in the real world.

Furthermore, one can argue – as Peter Truog and others have – that, while it may make sense to invest in transit-oriented development (TOD) and the “jobs to people” approach on paper, it is impractical. Planning and building fixed transit assets can take a decade or more. Encouraging businesses to relocate along existing transit lines and form new, transit-rich clusters also takes time.

In the meantime, people of color in high-poverty neighborhoods will continue to struggle to access jobs in far-flung suburbs. It must be better then to connect these neighborhoods with existing low-skill, entry level jobs with buses in order to give them a leg up and not keep them locked out of the job market.

There is merit to this argument. Shifting transit systems from hub-and-spoke (radial) networks focused on the central business district (CBD) to a grid system focused on multiple destinations is one effective alternative. The success of Houston’s redesign bears this out.

Research supports the benefits of moving away transit systems away from a radial service orientation to a multi-destination one, as well. Jeffrey Brown and Gregory Thompson, researchers at Florida State, have published several studies illustrating this point. In a 2008 paper (paywall), they found that metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) with multi-destination transit systems outperformed those with radial systems for ridership, service productivity, and cost-effectiveness.

With this in mind, I want to examine the economics – both financial and political – of connecting people to jobs with transit in Northeast Ohio. Ultimately, when we explore these broader factors, it becomes clear that, while busing a low-income worker from Central to a manufacturer in Solon may help that individual, it remains insufficient to the problem at hand.

Are we bringing people to jobs or just chasing jobs with transit?

While improving system performance is an absolute good that all transit agencies should pursue, it does not necessarily mean that a city will see improvements in job accessibility for low-income people of color.

Moreover, system redesigns are useful, but transit systems still require minimum levels of population and job density in order to deliver high-quality service and remain cost-effective. According to Robert Cervero and Erick Guerra, job density is more important than residential density. These minimum thresholds of job density simply do not exist in most metros any more, particularly Cleveland.

In a 2009 paper, Elizabeth Kneebone from Brookings traced the outward shift of jobs in American cities. She examined the location of jobs in the 98 largest MSAs from 1998-2006, focusing on three bands around the CBD: a 3-mile radius for the central city, a 10-mile radius for the “beltway,” and a 35-mile radius to define the metro’s sprawl area.

Her analysis showed that just 21% of employees work within 3 miles of downtown, while a plurality (more than 45%) work between 10 and 35 miles away from the CBD. Additionally, she found that jobs were growing fastest in these outer areas; jobs at least 10 miles from the CBD grew 2.5 times faster than those in the beltway ring and 57 times faster than those in the central city.

We may have heard much since the end of the Great Recession about the revival of cities and the shift away from suburbia, but this shift has not occurred for jobs.

Another 2015 report from Kneebone and colleague Natalie Holmes makes clear that the suburbanization of people and jobs quickened during the 2000s. As a result, “by 2010 in the nation’s largest metro areas, the majority of every major ethnic and racial group and the majority of the poor lived in suburbs for the first time.”

The rate of outward growth was faster for jobs than people, though. Kneebone and Holmes concluded that the number of jobs within a typical commute for a resident of 96 major MSAs fell by 7% from 2000 to 2012. Nowhere was this change greater than in Cleveland, which saw a 26.5% decrease in the number of jobs available within a normal commute.

Given these trends and the realities facing GCRTA, trying to bring low-income workers from neighborhoods like Central to employment centers like Solon would be less about bringing “people to jobs” and more about chasing jobs with transit. What’s the likelihood that a new bus route to a suburban job campus will still be useful in 3 to 5 years?

cleveland job sprawl 2000-2012

No city saw a larger decrease in the number of accessible jobs from 2000 to 2012 than Cleveland (courtesy of The Brookings Institution).

Whither the job hubs?

And even if you know the jobs would remain stationary in the short-term, which locations should GCRTA prioritize?

Jobs have sprawled to such an extent in Northeast Ohio that few actual job hubs remain. NOAcA has found that fewer than one-quarter of all jobs in Northeast Ohio are concentrated in the region’s 6 largest job hubs, and only one such hub – Cleveland’s CBD – contains more than 10% of jobs. Most parts of the region simply lack the job density needed for new transit investments to secure funding and be cost-effective.

Given GCRTA’s well-documented and ongoing budgetary crisis, shouldn’t it be on the employers in places like Solon to step up and address their own workforce recruitment challenges?

There are several options that they could pursue, on their own or in concert with GCRTA. They could join GCRTA’s new vanpool program, which can help up to 15 people get to work in one vehicle. They could run their own shuttle service, like many companies already do in the Bay Area. They could invest in first-mile/last-mile initiatives like carshare or bikeshare programs to make it easier from employees to get from a bus stop to the worksite. (Because, yes, the 41 and 41F buses already run to Solon)

Each of these options provides some of the benefits of car ownership without placing the steep financial burden upon the low-income worker. Research suggests that owning a car doubles the odds of low-income person finding a job and quadruples the odds that s/he keeps it. Transit, on the other hand, only seems to help people keep jobs they already have.

And if these employers are, in fact, committed to bringing new transit investments to their doorsteps, why don’t they approach GCRTA with public-private partnership options? Perhaps employers in a hub like Solon could use tax increment financing (TIF) and take advantage of the increased property values that fixed transit investments would generate to cover the capital costs.

We can’t fix systemic issues with “imagination”

The problem is not just a lack of imagination and creative solutions, as Peter Truog suggests. In reality, it is much larger than that.

As I’ve illustrated, employers have known for at least 20 years that their outward migration was creating a spatial mismatch between them and potential employees, yet they continued to sprawl regardless. Hell, public officials were discussing this in detail during the 1990s, and GCRTA even created a vanpool program to address it at the time.

Some observers have argued that employers may be relocating to suburbia and exurbia in response to residential sprawl. If that was the case, perhaps facilitating the suburbanization of low-income residents and people of color could actually address spatial mismatch.

Unfortunately, that argument does not hold up to even the slightest scrutiny. In a 2007 paper, Michael Stoll and Harry Holzer of Brookings examined population and job growth rates in central cities, low-income suburbs, and high-income suburbs.

Residential populations grew at a faster clip in low-income suburbs than in high-income – 36% and 16%, respectively – reflecting the suburbanization of poverty in recent years. In contrast, jobs grew 30% faster in high-income suburbs, suggesting that jobs are shifting towards these more exclusive locales, where few low-income workers live. These location decisions are likely exacerbating spatial mismatch.

Stoll also tackled this topic in regards to race in an earlier study. In this analysis, he examined the relationship between job sprawl and spatial mismatch in 300 MSAs in the year 2000. He found that, while there is no statistically significant relationship between job sprawl and spatial mismatch for whites, one exists for blacks and Latinos.

Each 10% increase in the job sprawl index score was associated with a 3.1% and 1.7% increase the spatial mismatch index scores for blacks and Latinos, respectively. The link between job sprawl and spatial mismatch for blacks was especially significant in large Midwestern metros, like Cleveland and Detroit.

Transit alone won’t solve civil rights issues

But, perhaps all of that is in the past. What if you had a particularly woke set of employers who wanted to address that mismatch by encouraging low-income black workers to move closer to available jobs?

Well, you’d likely just run head first into systemic questions of housing discrimination and exclusionary zoning. Dozens of studies and reports from several cities – including Cleveland – have documented our job accessibility crisis for years now. And yet, not only has the problem persisted, it has gotten worse.

Susan Turner, a researcher at Wayne State University, provided a valuable insight into this question with her 1997 study (PDF) in Detroit.

Turner interviewed a number of employers in suburban Detroit who faced comparable workforce challenges. What she found was revealing. Instead of relocating to the suburbs to follow workers, Turner’s interviews suggested that many employers were intentionally moving to such locations in order to avoid black workers and keep their workforces white.

She noted that, while every predominately white suburban firm cited poor transportation as the reason why they couldn’t hire black workers, the firms that hired black workers not only faced these same challenges, they were often located in more remote sites. But they and their employees still managed to overcome these barriers.

Turner argued that her study “challenges the assumption that merely removing physical barriers to places of employment would improve the labor market outcomes of blacks.”


Negative racial attitudes aided the creation of the spatial mismatch. Thus, spatial mismatch, while partly due to economic factors related to finding cheaper land for new production processes, also results from persistent racial animosities and discrimination that find their expression through spatial variables.

One anecdote in the study was particularly eye-opening. Turner recounted a story that an urban planning official in Detroit told her. The planner’s agency attempted to set up a vanpool program for low-income Detroit workers in the mid-1990s, but they could not find any interested in employers.

According to Turner, when the planner asked the employers why they would not take part, “most indicated that they did not want to hire black workers, stating ‘Why do you think we moved out here in the first place?’”

Transportation (and the provision of public transit) may be a civil rights issue, but it is not sufficient to overcome these sort of systemic civil rights abuses.

Truog and those who support his view have not engaged with this massive topic. The fact of the matter is, Solon has pursued and continues to pursue exclusionary zoning policies that harm low-income people of color. When developers proposed a multi-family housing development in 2014, residents created the committee against rezoning Solon (CARS). (Side note: that acronym is a little too on the nose.)

These opponents tried to couch their opposition to the apartments under the guise of zoning, but the group’s leader, Don Gallo, was more explicit. He told reporters that the apartments “will not attract the wealthier young people…They will attract riff-raff.”

The ever-present specter of racism, which has only grown more ominous in recent months, continues to plague these discussions.


Ultimately, in my view, a problem this large requires a multifaceted approach.

  1. In the immediate term, employers with workforce challenges in suburbs like Solon should step up and tackle their own problems by implementing the sorts of programs I outlined earlier. Spatial mismatch is a problem that warrants the attention of the public sector, but that does not mean the private sector can wash its hand of it. We’ve spent more than enough public money to subsidize sprawl and then clean up its consequences.
  2. In the short- to medium-term, GCRTA should pursue a system redesign, moving from a radial to a multi-destination service orientation, like Houston and Columbus. This approach would be beneficial for the agency and the region, even if it fails to address job accessibility.
  3. And, in the long-term, the region’s elected officials and planning agencies should devote their attention and resources on TOD in order to take advantage of the benefits that it creates. Not only will it reduce the financial and environmental burdens of sprawl and chip away at job inaccessibility, it can also help firms take advantage of the benefits of industry agglomeration, which would increase their productivity and output.

Fortunately, there is no inherent conflict between 2 and 3. On the contrary, Brown and Thompson, in a 2012 paper analyzing transit in Broward County, Florida, wrote,

Contrary to what many planners believe, developing a multi-destination transit system does not necessarily work at cross-purposes with the planning goal of clustering urban development. One consequence of a multi-destination grid is the emergence of a number of strong routes. Planners develop transfer centers along such routes, and these centers can develop into strong development nodes.

We can begin to address Northeast Ohio’s overarching job accessibility issues. But we cannot do it if we ignore the systemic challenges behind them, and we cannot do it if we fail to take a regional approach. Both of these will require much more than just running another bus to Solon. It will require us to acknowledge and begin to ameliorate the 800-pound gorilla in the room.

Which approach is better: ‘jobs to people’ or ‘people to jobs’?

healthline health tech corridor
healthline health tech corridor

A GCRTA Healthline bus rolls down Euclid Avenue past the MidTown Tech Park campus in Cleveland’s Health Tech Corridor (courtesy of the Anchor District Council).

Back in September 2015, I was fortunate enough to take part in a focus group discussion at the Fund for Our Economic Future on a report they were finalizing that examined access to jobs in Northeast Ohio.

On the whole, I found the report, The Geography of Jobs, to be a valuable first stab at a conversation that desperately needs to occur in this region. While the comments from some of the business community representatives gave me pause, as they did not seem to fully grasp the gravity of sprawl and weak transit for our economy, it was nevertheless a useful discussion.

Jobs to people or people to jobs?

It was with that in the back of my mind that I eagerly read an op-ed on this topic from Peter Truog, the director of civic innovation and insight at the Fund. In this piece, Truog responded to a study out of Cleveland State by Richey Piiparinen and James Russell, which examined whether or not transportation policy is inhibiting the region’s movement towards a “knowledge-based economy.” The authors reached a fairly clear conclusion on job access and transportation in Cleveland, writing:

Specifically, it may not (sic) prudent to advocate for limited transportation funding in the creation of transit connections to disparate areas governed by maturing labor markets. Put simply, will bringing a bus to the likes of Solon fix what is largely structural? Probably not.”

It was this conclusion that Truog took exception to in his piece. He argued that the CSU study “risks encouraging ‘zero-sum’ transit funding discussions where urban centers vie to win a larger share of a fixed transit investment ‘pie.'” Instead, relying on the Fund’s report, he argued that we would be doing a disservice to low-income, low-skilled workers in struggling neighborhoods if we fail to improve transit service to manufacturing job hubs, like Solon.

So who is correct here? Should Northeast Ohio, forever plagued by enormous challenges and insufficient resources, choose to invest in the types of supply-side approaches to addressing job accessibility advocated by Truog? Or should policymakers instead focus on Piiparinen and Russell’s demand-side approaches, which call for concentrating economic development in areas with existing infrastructure and labor pools? To use Truog’s nomenclature – should be focus on bringing people to jobs or jobs to people?

Focus on Central

First, I want to examine the validity of Truog’s claims, particularly as they relate to Central, the Cleveland neighborhood that the Fund focused on in its report. According to Truog, residents of neighborhoods like Central have not benefited from new investments in the City, like the Health Tech Corridor along Euclid Avenue.

Instead, these residents depend upon suburban locations, like Solon, which “have a high concentration of manufacturing jobs” and “will remain important economic hubs with jobs for multiple skill levels.” As a result, Truog asserts that it is ” an economic imperative to include these communities in the transit discussion.”

But what do the data say? To answer that question, I decided to check the 2015 5-year data on commuting habits from the American Community Survey (ACS) for the 5 census tracts located in Central, as illustrated in the map below.

census tracts central

Census tracts from the 2010 Census located in Cleveland’s Central neighborhood (courtesy of NEO CANDO).

At first glance, the data seem to support some of Truog’s claims. Residents of Central are far more likely to take transit to work (35.5%) than Cleveland residents as a whole (10.2%). The share of Central residents who do not own a car (42.7%) is also vastly higher than the City’s (10.2%). But that is more or less where Truog’s claims start to lose merit.

Manufacturing is not as important for Central residents as Truog asserts. Just 11.2% of workers in the neighborhood are employed in the manufacturing sector, compared to 13% for all city residents. In contrast, a plurality (40.6%) of workers in Central are employed in educational services and health care/social assistance – more commonly known as eds and meds – nearly double the citywide rate (26%). And, contrary to what Truog may claim, manufacturing sector employees are not more transit-dependent than other workers. In fact, a larger percentage of eds and meds workers take transit both within Central (28.6%) and citywide (8.35%) than manufacturing workers (24% and 7.5%, respectively).

Interestingly, not owning a car does not necessarily seem to make one totally transit-dependent. Nearly 12% of Cleveland residents who live in a zero car household drove alone to work, while another 10.8% carpool. Just over half (54%) take transit.

Now, none of this discussion is to say that the status quo represents the ideal situation for every worker or would-be worker. In a perfect world, I imagine that we would see people travel differently, but the end result would likely be a higher drive alone rate among low-income Clevelanders, regardless of the location of their jobs. Car ownership remains a major aspiration for many low-income workers, though one that is largely too expensive to obtain.

When it comes to length of commutes, 15.2% of workers in Central spend more than 60 minutes traveling to work each way, more than twice the city average of 6.2%.  Of those Central residents with commutes shorter than 30 minutes, roughly one-third drive to work, while just 10.8% take transit. For those with hour-long commutes, these numbers are 7.4% and 85.9%, respectively.

These numbers may suggest that those who already have lengthy commutes – perhaps to suburban job hubs like Solon – are already able to utilize transit. More likely, it reflects how much longer it takes transit riders to get work, limiting the number of jobs they can access. According to the report from the Cleveland Fed, just one-third of all jobs in Northeast Ohio are accessible via transit.

Examining the evidence from the Bay Area

While the latter explanation seems far more likely, the ACS data do not tell us the direction of the relationship. To get a better sense of whether the “jobs to people” or “people to jobs” approach is better, we need to dig into the literature.

In a 2003 study (paywall), Harry Holzer from Georgetown and John Quigley and Steven Raphael from Berkeley looked at the results of a natural experiment in the Oakland area to parse this issue.

Voters approved a sales tax increase in 1986, allowing the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) to expand its network into the Oakland suburbs. Two new stops – the Castro Valley in the Oakland urban core and Dublin/Pleasanton in its eastern suburban ring – opened in May 1997.


To examine how the transit expansion may have affected job access and employment opportunities among blacks and Latinos, the authors conducted two surveys of employers in the area. The first occurred in April-May 1997, while the follow-up survey was done in April and July 1998, after the lines had been fully operational for a year.

They broke employers into two groups: those who were located within 6 miles of one of the new transit stations were part of the treatment group, while those outside of this radius were part of the control. This allowed the authors to determine whether proximity to the new stations influenced an employer’s propensity to hire people of color.

Interestingly, the authors found a strong, statistically significant relationship between an employer’s distance from a station and its odds of hiring a Latino worker. The likelihood that an employer would hire a Latino declined by 1.5-2.% for each mile of distance that an employer is located from the station, increasing the demand for Latino labor by roughly 8%.

But no such relationship existed for black workers. On the contrary, there was a slightly higher chance – though not statistically significant – that employers located more than 6 miles from a station would hire black workers.

The authors suggest this may stem from the fact that, while Latinos were more evenly dispersed throughout the Oakland area, black workers were heavily concentrated in urban core neighborhoods. Latinos were also employed at nearly double the rate of black workers to begin with. These conditions may have made it easier for them to locate and take advantage of jobs opened up by the new transit service.

Ultimately, Holzer, Quigley, and Raphael concluded,

Given some of the extreme distances between urban neighborhoods and suburban employment centers in modern metropolitan areas, along with the low-density sprawl development that characterizes many suburban employment centers, these patterns indicate that the potential of transit policy to foster large increases in reverse commuting is limited.

What about the Midwest though?

But that’s just the Bay Area, so perhaps the study has limited applicability to Northeast Ohio. Fortunately, we can draw from another study by Nebiyou Tilahun of the University of Illinois at Chicago and Yingling Fan of the University of Minnesota, focused on Minneapolis-St. Paul.

In their article, Tilahun and Fan consider the effects of long-range transit plans (PDF) from the region’s metropolitan planning organization (MPO), the Metropolitan Council. In their plans, the Council calls for adding 14 new transitways by 2030, which would ramp up transit connectivity in the metro area.

By modeling various scenarios, Tilahun and Fan are able to examine the “jobs to people” or “people to jobs” debate in a Midwestern context. They model the effects of four separate scenarios:

  1. Transitway-focused centralization: people and jobs cluster along transit lines; closest to transit-oriented development (TOD)
  2. Decentralization scenario: people and jobs continue to sprawl outwards
  3. Reference scenario 1: jobs cluster along transit lines, while people continue residential sprawl
  4. Reference scenario 2: people cluster along transit lines, while jobs continue to sprawl

To examine the impacts of these scenarios, the authors consider the accessibility of jobs in the Twin Cities via transit, including walking time, waiting time, and transfers. If a person can reach a job via transit within 30 minutes, it is considered accessible to her/him.

In 2010, a randomly chosen person in the Twin Cities could access 117,611 jobs within 30 minutes via transit. Under the transit system envisioned by the Metropolitan Council, this number would grow by 7.5% through 2030. Considering the alternatives, the authors note,

Results from the scenario analysis show that the highest gains in accessibility result from a policy of concentrating both jobs and population along transitways. Given the current (and anticipated base) patterns of population and jobs, if one had to choose between centralizing population or jobs, the accessibility gains suggest that one should focus on centralizing jobs along transitways.

Reference scenario 1, in which jobs but not people locate along transit, increases accessibility by 4.5%. This is more than double what can be achieved by centralizing people only. Even if residential sprawl continues, focusing on TOD for jobs significantly improves accessibility.

Ultimately, Tilahun and Fan conclude,

Under these scenario analyses, we show that centralizing housing and jobs along transitway corridors is the best strategy to follow if increasing regional accessibility is the goal. Particularly a strategy that focuses on targeted jobs centralization along transitway corridors would have significant payoffs…

By bringing jobs closer to public transportation corridors, higher accessibility gains can be achieved than can be by the provision of the transportation service alone. This can move forward broader access equity questions among the region’s population by enhancing access to car-less or other transportation disadvantaged groups.

Taken together, these results throw cold water on Truog’s advocacy for the “people to jobs” approach to Northeast Ohio’s serious accessibility challenges. They also lend support to Piiparinen and Russell’s findings, which call for more coordinated regional investment in TOD projects like the Healthline.

Nevertheless, each of the articles and studies I have considered here treats transit as an exogenous variable. In other words, they act as though the provision of transit and its effects on job accessibility occur in a vacuum, free from larger institutional questions. That is simply not the case (though it makes sense in an academic sense, as you want to isolate your independent variable).

But, given that this post is already absurdly long, I will punt that issue to a second piece. There, I will examine the broader trends of job sprawl in Northeast Ohio and how larger, systemic issues like racism and exclusionary zoning influence the impact of transit on job access for minorities in Cleveland.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The threat from vehicles is not new

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

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

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

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

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

Vehicle barriers already exist in Cleveland

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


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

bollards west mall drive

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

We need to talk about the Malls

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


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

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

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

What happened to the retractable bollards?

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

Whose call was this? What was the justification?

So what’s really going on here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Moving beyond the numbers to the people in this debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

gender rta riders

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

Capturing the impacts of the transit waiting environment

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

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

The waiting is the hardest part

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

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

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

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

Mitigate for me, not for thee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

public square bus protest
public square bus protest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About those “wheezing” buses…

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

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

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

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

The method to my madness

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

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

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

additional emissions public square

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

Closing Superior generates more emissions

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

And those emissions have real costs

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

costs from additional public square emissions

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

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

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

Don’t forget those unknown unknowns

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

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

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

The startling costs of air pollution on unborn children

robert wyly cleveland pollution
robert wyly cleveland pollution

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

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

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

Drawing the link between air quality and preterm birth

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

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

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

Calculating the social costs of PTB from air pollution

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

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

Based on the best available data, the authors find:

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

Uneven distribution of costs

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

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

preterm birth from pollution by county

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you want to 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.