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.

Karachi’s Heat Wave a Sign of Future Challenges to Pakistan’s Fragile Democracy

A man (R) cools off under a public tap, while others wait to fill their bottles, during intense hot weather in Karachi, Pakistan, June 23, 2015. A devastating heat wave has killed more than 400 people in Pakistan's southern city of Karachi over the past three days, health officials said on Tuesday, as paramilitaries set up emergency medical camps in the streets. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro - RTX1HPUL

A man (R) cools off under a public tap, while others wait to fill their bottles, during intense hot weather in Karachi, Pakistan, June 23, 2015. A devastating heat wave has killed more than 400 people in Pakistan’s southern city of Karachi over the past three days, health officials said on Tuesday, as paramilitaries set up emergency medical camps in the streets (courtesy of Reuters).

Karachi, the world’s second largest city by population, is emerging from the grips of a deadly heatwave. A persistent low pressure system camped over the Arabian Sea stifled ocean breezes and brought temperatures in excess of 113°F (45°C) to the city of 23 million people in June. The searing heat disrupted electricity and water service, making life nearly unbearable. All told, officials estimate the heatwave killed at least 1,200 Pakistanis, more than twice as many as have died in terrorist attacks this year.

But meteorology alone cannot explain this turn of events. Rather, as with all disasters, Karachi’s heatwave is rooted in a complex web of natural and man-made factors. “The emergency is the product of a perfect storm of meteorological, political, and religious factors,” notes The New York Times.

Karachi’s rapid growth has heightened people’s exposure and vulnerability to heat. Since 2000, Karachi’s population has doubled, making it the fastest growing megacity in the world. This population explosion has overwhelmed the capacity of local government. At least half of all Karachiites live in informal settlements, with little access to infrastructure and vital services. Unplanned expansion has also led to widespread environmental degradation. Karachi’s annual concentration of fine particulate matter is 11.7 timesWorld Health Organization standards (and more than double that of Beijing), making it the fifth most air-polluted city in the world. Karachi also faces an acute water crisis. Some of its poorest residents survive on just 10 liters per day, one-fifth of daily drinking requirements, while some estimates suggest more than 30,000 people die from water-related diseases every year.

Wide swathes of trees and other vegetation have been cleared for roads and buildings, limiting shade and exacerbating the urban heat island effect (the process by which urbanized areas absorb and retain solar radiation, significantly increasing local temperatures). Add to this the city’s construction boom which creates a major demand for manual labor and the onset of the holy month of Ramadan – during which Muslims can neither eat nor drink before sundown – and you have a recipe for disaster.

To read the rest, head over to the original post at New Security Beat.

Cleveland is finally raising its parking rates, but they’re still way too low

cleveland parking meters

Parking meters in downtown Cleveland (courtesy of Cleveland.com).

William F. Buckley, the legendary publisher of The National Review, famously wrote that “a conservative is someone who is standing athwart history, yelling Stop.” If that’s the case, I guess that makes Councilman Zack Reed a dyed in the wool conservative – at least when it comes to parking – as he continues his crusade to keep Cleveland’s parking policies trapped in the 1960s.

If you recall, Councilman Reed is the person who pushed through legislation in 2008 to make on-street parking free on Black Friday throughout Cleveland, depriving the city of thousands in forgone revenue, year in and year out. Well, he’s at it again.

At its weekly meeting last night, Cleveland City Council approved legislation to raise parking rates in the city, as Leila Atassi explains. The legislation will increase downtown parking meter rates to $1 per hour from $0.75 per hour and raise the daily and hourly fees at city-owned parking lots by $1. Additionally, the city now has the ability to charge up to $30 per day for special event parking, up from the current $20 rate.

Every member of the City Council voted in favor of the bill, save one. Yes, Councilman Reed played the role of self-appointed champion of the people by voting no, arguing that the rate hikes are just another way to “gouge” the “hardworking, middle class folks” of Cleveland. Councilman Reed’s one-man battle to stand athwart history might be noble, if it had any basis in reality.

According to Michael Cox, the Director of Public Works, Cleveland has not raised parking fees in the city since 1989. Our parking policies are, quite literally, a relic of the Cold War era. The city’s parking rates are dramatically lower than those of comparable cities. Compare Cleveland’s rates to Pittsburgh, for instance. Effective January 1, Pittsburgh has charged $4 per hour for on-street meter parking in the downtown core; rates throughout the rest of the city vary from $1-3 per hour (with the exception of the Carrick neighborhood, where the hourly rate is $0.50).

Even with the new increase, Cleveland will only charge $0.75 per hour near hospitals and schools and $0.50 per hour in neighborhoods with meters. Pittsburgh has also had a residential permit parking system in place for 34 years, something that Cleveland has only recently even begun considering. Cincinnati, for its part, charges anywhere from $1.75-2.25 per hour in its central business district.

Cleveland’s failure to increase its rates in a quarter century has significantly decreased their real value. Due to inflation, the $0.75 a Clevelander paid to park in 1989 would be worth just $0.40 today. In fact, the new increase still fails to keep up with the rate of inflation. For the hourly rate to have the same value as $0.75 did in 1989, we would need to charge $1.42. It’s no wonder that the Division of Parking has been running in the red for years.

If Councilman Reed was really concerned about protecting the interests of working families in Cleveland, this should outrage him. The fact is that, because we have failed to raise parking rates, the City has had to prop up the Division of Parking by spending money out of its general fund. Every dollar that we spend to keep parking rates at below-market value is a dollar we cannot spend on our crumbling roads, improving our schools, or shoring up public safety services.

Moreover, approximately 75% of people attending Browns, Cavs, and Indians games hail from not just outside of Cleveland proper, but from outside of Cuyahoga County. This was a major issue in last year’s Sin Tax renewal campaign. Accordingly, by artificially suppressing parking rates, Cleveland residents are effectively being forced to subsidize the suburban sprawl that has hollowed out this region for decades. Cleveland simply cannot afford not to raise the cost of parking in our city.

This legislation is a step in the right direction, and I applaud the 16 Council members who voted in favor of it. But we still have a long, long way to go if we hope to rationalize parking policy in this city.

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.

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.

When your state doesn’t fund public transportation, you end up with this

bus stop at route 237 & Eastland Road
rta healthline buses

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

Jason Segedy, the remarkably progressive Director of the Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study (AMATS), the metropolitan planning organization (MPO) for the Akron area, has the full text of an interview he did with Mark Lefkowitz of GreenCityBlueLake up at his blog. In the interview, he discussed the changes that we need to make in Northeast Ohio in order to enhance public transportation and make it a viable alternative for residents. It’s well worth reading.

In the interview, Jason discusses what we need do in order to develop a big picture for public transit at both the metro and regional level going forward. But he also gets down into the minutiae that really affects the daily experiences of public transit users, including

things like improving rider safety (mostly perception of safety); ease-of-use (using smart phone technology to give real-time travel information and for electronic fare payment); improving transit waiting environments; improving walkability and bikability to transit stops; and working more closely with local governments and private developers to improve signage, wayfinding, and to institute transit-friendly urban design.

I have used public transportation extensively both in Cleveland and Washington, DC, where (despite all of WMATA’s many, many problems), living car free is actually a viable option. Unlike in DC, in Cleveland I cannot use a smart phone app to check when the next bus or train arrives, I cannot reload my fare card online, and I am often unable to escape the elements when riding the bus or rapid.

In many ways, as Jason pointed out yesterday, these types of quotidian issues are what really controls whether or not people will utilize transit. And one of the most crucial issues is that of rider comfort and safety. If people don’t feel safe from harm at bus stops and rapid stations, they won’t come back the next time. It’s no wonder that the Greater Cleveland RTA has to spend thousands of dollars on commercials assuring Clevelanders that taking the bus isn’t as bad as getting a root canal.

But, given the state of Ohio’s absolute refusal to invest in public transportation, riding the bus or rapid in this region can often feel like a chore. As a state, Ohio spends less public transportation than all but 3 others.

Funding for transit in Ohio has fallen by three-quarters (PDF), from $44.22 million in 2000 to just $10.87 million by 2010. And whereas other states provide, on average, 23% of total operating funds for transit agencies, Ohio contributes a whopping 3%. When you break it down on a per capita basis, the state spent just $0.94 per Ohioan in FY 2010, less than every other state in the Great Lakes region. Even that car-dependent state up North spends $19.98 per capita, over 21 times more than the Buckeye state.

Much of this stems from the fact that the Ohio constitution bars the use of gas tax revenues for anything but highway construction and maintenance, meaning that all transit funding must come from the state’s general fund. And of the minuscule amount of funding the state does provide, just 3% of it goes towards capital expenditures. As a result, without federal grants like the TIGER program, few, if any, new public transportation projects would go forward.

That virtual absence of funding for transit and ODOT’s infatuation with sprawl leads to situations like what you see below. This is an actual bus stop in Northeast Ohio. While I obviously haven’t seen every possible bus stop in the 7-county area, this is easily the most dangerous and least rider-friendly stop I have ever come across.

bus stop at route 237 & Eastland Road

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

This bus stop is located where Eastland Road meets Route 237, just across from Hopkins Airport and the I-X Center. If you look closely enough, you can just make out the small, blue RTA bus stop sign.

Route 237 is a restricted-access highway with a 50mph speed limit. In other words, you aren’t even allowed to walk or bike on the road due to the dangerous speed at which traffic moves, but you can wait for a bus 3 feet away from passing cars. And if you need to cross to the other side of 237 for any reason, keep dreaming. There’s no intersection anywhere near it. I don’t know if anyone has been killed or injured waiting for a bus here, but if not, it’s just a matter of time. Ohio has completely abrogated its responsibility to fund alternate transportation, and the end result is this kind of nightmare for public safety.

So what are the worst/most dangerous bus stops you’ve come across in Northeast Ohio? Share you pictures in the comments or send them to me directly. Maybe we can shame ODOT into changing it’s reckless ways. Probably not.

The Opportunity Corridor is an environmental justice disaster

opportunity corridor map

Map of the proposed Opportunity Corridor path (courtesy of the Ohio Department of Transportation).

There is no question that environmental justice (EJ) is and has long been one of the key civil rights issues facing this country. While we may not think about the issue, perhaps because the environment is seen as some amorphous, natural entity, environmental quality varies significantly based on location and socioeconomic status.

Decades of research shows that poor communities of color are far more susceptible to the deleterious effects of air, water, and soil pollution (PDF) than other groups. Though the issue continues to loom large, the country has made progress over the last two decades.The EPA has an Environmental Justice division, an offshoot of Executive Order 12898, which President Clinton signed 20 years ago this February. All 50 states and the District of Columbia now have some sort of EJ legislation or policy on the books.

But despite these successes, much remains to be done. A new study from researchers at the University of Minnesota in PLOS One shows clearly that racial disparities in air quality remain a serious issue (PDF) for public and environmental health in the US.

The authors compared Census data to national information on exposure to nitrogen dioxide, NO2, one of six criteria air pollutants as set by the EPA. Based on the analysis, average NO2 concentrations were 14.5 parts per billion (ppb) for nonwhites, compared to just 9.9ppb for whites. Accordingly, nonwhites were exposed to 38% higher levels of NO2. Exposure also broke down along income levels.

no2 disparities by county

County level differences in population-weighted mean NO2 concentrations between low-income nonwhites and high-income whites (courtesy of PLOS One).

The authors note that these disparities, particularly the major gap along racial lines, likely leads to major public health impacts. They estimate that, if nonwhites had the same rate of NO2 exposure as whites, it would lead an annual decrease of roughly 7,000 ischemic heart disease deaths. To put that in perspective, 3.2 million adults would have to give up smoking to get this same outcome.

Air pollution and race in Northeast Ohio

As you might expect, there is a significant racial disparity in NO2 exposure within the Cleveland metro area. Based on the authors’ data, nonwhites in Cleveland are exposed to 2.3ppb more NO2 than whites on an annual basis. This constitutes the 17th largest gross disparity in the country. Much of the work on urban air pollution focuses on pollutants from stationary sources, particularly coal-fired power plants. But, if you actually break down the data in low-income, minority communities, pollution from transportation emerges as a major issue. In a 2009 report from the Pacific Institute (PDF), residents of Richmond, a low-income community in Northern California, identified freight transport as one of the leading environmental threats to their well-being.

Unlike other pollutants like CO2, SO2, or mercury, the EPA says that 57% of NO2 pollution derives from mobile sources (i.e. automobiles). That number is even higher for Ohio (65%) and Cuyahoga County (77%). NO2 has been linked to asthma, decreased lung function, low birth weight, and elevated risks of both cardiovascular and respiratory mortality.

Unfortunately, NO2 pollution represents a legacy of our country’s highly flawed history of transportation policy, which cut low-income and minority neighborhoods in half and facilitated White flight into the outlying suburbs. Due to such misguided investments, the CDC estimates that 11.3 million Americans live within 150 meters of a major freeway; 47% of these individuals are persons of color.

aerial photo of innerbelt bridge construction cleveland

Construction of the Innerbelt Bridge in Cleveland sliced right through existing residential neighborhoods, as shown in this picture from 1961 (courtesy of  the Cleveland State University archives).

How does the Opportunity Corridor fit into this?

It is in this toxic environment that ODOT and its allies are planning to drop the Opportunity Corridor, a 3-mile, $330 million highway in the middle of overwhelmingly low-income communities of color. I’ve already discussed some of the social and environmental challenges facing the neighborhoods in the path of the project. These neighborhoods have asthma rates nearly double the national average (PDF), and infant mortality rates have been as high as 69 deaths per 1,000 live births. That number is above the rates for Bangladesh, Burma, Haiti, Pakistan, and Rwanda. Many of these critical health issues are closely linked to transportation.

Air quality in Northeast Ohio

While air pollution data are not available below the county level, examining Cuyahoga County’s numbers paints a clear picture. Cuyahoga County ranks among the dirtiest 10% of counties in the entire country for cancer and non-cancer health risks stemming from hazardous air pollutants (HAPs). It also ranks in the worst 10% of all counties in Ohio, a state where people of color are 1.5 times more likely to contract cancer from HAPs and 3.3 times more likely to live near facilities that emit criteria air pollutants.

As the maps below demonstrate, the neighborhoods where the Opportunity Corridor would run bear an immense share of this burden. Children living in these areas have face dangerously high levels of blood lead contamination; this is a toxic legacy of decrepit housing, for sure, but also of a decades-long campaign to keep tetraethyllead in gasoline, despite ample evidence of its harm. (Neil deGrasse Tyson discussed this issue in great detail on Cosmos last week.) Lead is known to reduce cognitive function and cause behavioral issues in children, including aggression and hyperactivity.

 

cuyahoga county blood lead levels

Source: Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium

Transportation also represents an important source of fine particulate matter, particularly from heavy trucks/freight, which rely on diesel fuel. While mobile sources only account for 5.2% of PM 2.5 nationally, that portion increases to 12.3% in Ohio and 27.5% in Cuyahoga County; one can only assume it is even higher than this total within these neighborhoods.

We know that PM 2.5 is a leading cause of respiratory and cardiovascular mortality; it is also a dangerous carcinogen. A 2012 study found that reducing levels of particulate pollution in the US by 1 µg/m3 would prevent 34,000 premature deaths annually. In Cuyahoga County, which saw 12,809 deaths from PM 2.5 in 2009, such reductions would prevent 91 premature deaths, more than anywhere else in the state.

pm 2.5 mortality improvements

Source: CDC Environmental Public Health Tracking

Lastly, we know that NO2 is essential for the development of ground level ozone, another dangerous urban air pollutant. Cuyahoga County has consistently remained in nonattainment of EPA ozone standards; from 2006-2008, the County averaged 0.081ppm of ozone, one of the highest marks in the country. The American Lung Association gives the county and the city of Cleveland a solid F for ozone pollution.

All told, the burden of disease in these areas is substantial. Some areas along the proposed highway lose more than 500 years of potential life per 1,000 residents, easily the highest toll in the region. Given the potential of the Opportunity Corridor to exacerbate air pollution in the area, it’s hard to see how the project could avoid being a serious environmental justice issue that calls for appropriate planning and mitigation. Surely, ODOT is on top of this issue?

years of potential life lost northeast ohio

Source: Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium

Environmental justice in ODOT’s planning

Not quite. Inexplicably (though not really, when you think about it), ODOT’s draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) gave short shrift to air pollution (PDF). In the DEIS, ODOT states that the project “does not present concern for air quality,” as it is unlikely to significantly increase carbon monoxide or PM 2.5 emissions. The agency does note that mobile source air toxins (MSATs) will likely increase in certain parts of the project area, but it then dismisses this concern within the same breath. And ODOT completely punts on ozone, stating that the issue is NOACA’s responsibility.

The report’s environmental justice is similarly insufficient. While it does acknowledge that “the project was found to have a disproportionately high and adverse effect to low-income and minority populations,” it claims to address the issue by implementing a “voluntary residential relocation program” (read: forcibly relocating 74 families and 44 businesses for a pittance), throwing some money at a rec center, and building a few noise walls.

But again, in typical ODOT Orwellian fashion, it also states that the project will simultaneously benefit these low-income communities of color by, among other things, improving “access to the Interstate system” and increasing “pedestrian and bicycle access, connectivity and safety.” Apparently enhancing freeway access in an area where most households don’t own automobiles is essential for local non-drivers and great for pedestrians.

EPA criticisms of the Opportunity Corridor

The report includes little, if anything, in the way of plans to mitigate potential increases in air pollution due to additional vehicular traffic or to tackle the severe underlying health issues residents face. Unsurprisingly, EPA Region 5 has criticized the DEIS, saying it contains insufficient information on environmental concerns. The letter pointedly reminds ODOT that the Opportunity Corridor runs through areas that are in nonattainment for ozone and PM 2.5, barely meet four other air pollution standards, and have a series of major environmental justice issues. Simply mentioning these issues in passing so the department can check off another box isn’t going to fly with a project of this import.

I know I’ve said before that Northeast Ohio’s transportation policies are stuck in the 1960s. The Opportunity Corridor is an unfortunate reminder of this fact and of that terrible era of “urban renewal.” Residents of the so-called “Forgotten Triangle” – God I hate that moniker – have a fractious history with the state government, one that has, understandably, left them suspicious of ODOT’s motives.

Public meetings about the project have become contentious, and locals have raised a number of valid criticisms of the project. Yet, the wheel of “progress” inevitably rolls forward once again.

If ODOT ever hopes to garner public buy-in for the Opportunity Corridor, it needs to do more than meet the minimum possible standards. Failing to even mention criteria air pollutants like NO2 and SO2 and claiming that a massive highway project will enhance pedestrian safety isn’t good enough any more. The agency and the project’s supporters can and must do more than the bare minimum. Otherwise, the Opportunity Corridor risks becoming yet another one of Northeast Ohio’s environmental justice disasters.

 

5 ways the Opportunity Corridor is like Keystone XL

keystone xl protest
keystone xl protest

12,000 people rallied around the White House against the Keystone XL pipeline in November 2011.

Angie Schmidt has a post on Rust Wire that explores how all large development projects in Cleveland, including the so-called Opportunity Corridor, are framed through a “jobs” lens. It’s a good piece that’s well worth reading, but it got me thinking about the similarities between the Opportunity Corridor and the Keystone XL pipeline.

[For those of you who are unfamiliar with road projects in the city of Cleveland, the Opportunity Corridor is a proposed three-mile boulevard that would pass through some of the poorest neighborhoods on the East Side of Cleveland. The road would more readily connect I-490, a freeway that ends abruptly at East 55th Street, to University Circle, the heart of Cleveland’s biomedical and arts industries. The Ohio Department of Transportation calculates that the project will cost $331.3 million to complete, putting the cost per mile at an astounding $110.4 million.]

In the first post I ever wrote on this site, I examined the fight over Keystone XL according to social movement theory. Many of these insights are surprisingly relevant for the Opportunity Corridor discussion as well. So let’s explore a few of these similarities.

Bipartisan support from powerful decision makers

Keystone XL has enjoyed support from both sides of the aisle. Although the pipeline has become increasingly partisan in recent months, particularly as House Republicans have made it a cause célèbre in budget and debt ceiling negotiations, it has enjoyed broad support from powerful players. TransCanada’s main US lobbyist, Paul Elliot, was the national deputy director for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, while a majority of Democrats (54%) still favored the project as of last September.

Similarly, the Opportunity Corridor has enjoyed support from a wide array of political leaders in Ohio. Republican Governor John Kasich is, unsurprisingly, firmly behind the project, using it as a way to garner additional support in heavily Democratic Northeastern Ohio. But several Democratic lawmakers, including Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and Cuyahoga County Executive (and gubernatorial candidate) Ed FitzGerald. Possibly the project’s biggest booster has been the center-left Plain Dealer, whose editor is a co-chair of the panel backing construction.

No longer a done deal

As recently as 2011, most policymakers assumed that Keystone XL was an inevitability. More than 70% of “insiders” in an October 2011 National Journal poll said the project would get final approval before the end of that year.

But the insiders underestimated the opposition to Keystone, which coalesced in the summer of 2011. Bill McKibben, the head of 350.org, worked to build a coalition of environment, labor, and social justice organizations that has effectively stalled the project for almost three years.  The fact that President Obama has publicly dismissed many arguments that Keystone proponents have made demonstrates just how effective this organized action has been.

Likewise, a movement has begun to build in opposition to the Opportunity Corridor. Angie Schmidt has been a leader in this movement, and she formed Clevelanders for Transportation Equity last year as a focal point. While the project still seems fairly likely to go forward, it has not been without backlash. The GreenCityBlueLake Institute continues to question its utility, while residents of the “Forgotten Triangle” have begun to speak out against the impact the project will have upon them.

Social and environmental costs

Thirdly, both projects would carry clear social and environmental consequences for populations that are politically, socioeconomically, and ecologically vulnerable.

Poor, marginalized communities of color live along both ends of Keystone XL. The pipeline begins in the tar sands fields of northern Alberta, where a number of First Nations tribes have lived along the Athabasca River for generations. This area has undergo dramatic changes in the past several years. Tar sands extraction has polluted the water extensively, and cancer rates in the region are 30% higher than average. At the other end of the proposed pipeline – Port Arthur, Texas – extensive pollution from oil refining creates severe health issues for residents who are overwhelmingly low-income persons of color. Children living in this area are 56% more likely to contract leukemia.

Likewise, the Opportunity Corridor is slated to run through some of the poorest neighborhoods in Cleveland. Five of the six affected neighborhoods have poverty rates higher than Cleveland’s 31.2% rate; in two of them, roughly two-thirds of residents live in poverty. The people living in these are also overwhelmingly Black or Hispanic and suffer from health outcomes more common in least developed countries than the United States.

minority populations opportunity corridor neighborhoods

The six neighborhoods affected by the proposed Opportunity Corridor are overwhelmingly home to persons of color (courtesy of ODOT’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement).

In 2008-2009, the asthma rates in this area stood at 15.6% (PDF), nearly double the national average (8%). In 2009, infant mortality rates in these neighborhoods were staggering, reaching as high as 69 deaths per 1,000 live births; that number is higher than the rates for Bangladesh, Burma, Haiti, Pakistan, and Rwanda. Many of these health disparities are due, at least in part, to extremely high rates of air pollution. Even ODOT acknowledges that truck traffic will increase in these neighborhoods and will run at much higher speeds (approximately 45 mph), which may exacerbate these issues further.

Given the severe environmental health implications of these projects, it is unsurprising that the EPA has cast shade on the environmental impact statements done for both projects.

Symbols of a larger issue

Both projects are major symbols of the paradigms they represent. Keystone is part of our fossil fuel-driven economic model that is slowly destroying our climate with every ton of greenhouse gases emitted. The Opportunity Corridor, in turn, is a microcosm of Northeast Ohio’s obsession with the sprawl-based, car-centric development model. While stymieing either project would fail to topple the superstructures that they represent, it would be a symbolic victory that allows us to say we are not going to be blindly beholden to such models any more.

It’s all about jobs

Except when it isn’t. Rather than portraying these projects for what they are – a pipeline that will benefit Canadian oil companies and a large highway project that will supposedly reduce nonexistent congestion – proponents have framed them as jobs projects. And it’s certainly hard to argue with the need to invest in our infrastructure and provide employment opportunities to the hard-hit construction industry.

Keystone XL’s supporters have used industry-driven studies to claim that it would create tens of thousands of short-term construction jobs, along with thousands of permanent jobs in related industries. Opportunity Corridor backers have also claimed that it would create jobs for construction workers and help spark a manufacturing renaissance on the city’s Southeast side.

But the evidence suggests that these claims are overblown. If you really dig into the numbers, you find out that, not only are these projects unlikely to live up the hype, but fixing our existing infrastructure would actually create more jobs.

Economics for Equity and Environment and the Labor Network for Sustainability recently released a report that considered the economic impact of repairing our existing oil/gas and water pipelines, rather than building Keystone XL. It found that investing $18 billion to repair these pipelines would create more than 300,000 jobs. This amounts to five times as many jobs and 156% as many direct jobs per unit of investment as Keystone. This endeavor would both counter the fossil fuel behemoth and pay greater economic dividends; it’s a clear win-win.

In turn, it seems likely that spending the money allocated for the Opportunity Corridor to repair Cleveland’s existing roads would be far more beneficial. While no one has directly analyzed the economic impact of such a proposal, a 2009 study from the Political Economy Research Institute found that repairing existing roads creates 16% more jobs than expanding road infrastructure (PDF). Using their numbers – 17,472 jobs per $1 billion invested – would suggest that repairing Cleveland’s roads would create 6,890 jobs, compared to the 5,940 from building the Opportunity Corridor (interestingly, even proponents estimate it would only create 5,300 jobs).

Overall, the similarities between Keystone XL and the Opportunity Corridor are striking. So it makes sense that the two movements opposed to their construction are following similar, grassroots tactics. While it’s too early to say how either fight will end up, I encourage Opportunity Corridor opponents, who seem to have a steeper hill to climb, to take heart. Even if the road is eventually built, you now have an opportunity to start building a strong coalition to fight for sustainable development and transportation equity over the long haul.