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BONUS: Do freeways really save us time?

 September 19, 2023 at 9:45 AM PDT

S1: If it takes you an hour to get to work , but you moved at free flowing conditions. There is nothing to be fixed there. But if you got to work in ten minutes in stop and go traffic , that's a catastrophe worthy of knocking down homes and businesses to fix.

S2: From Kpbs in San Diego , This is Freeway Exit. I'm Andrew Bowen. In today's bonus episode , I'll be talking with Beth Osborne , who leads the transportation arm of the national nonprofit Smart Growth America. Beth is one of the brains behind their latest report , Divided by Design. If you listen to this podcast from the start , you'll be familiar with the themes in this report. Freeways dividing black and brown communities , displacing families and small businesses , and leaving behind all kinds of impacts on public health , the environment and quality of life. Divided by Design makes an effort to quantify those losses and a handful of case studies. And the crux of the report is that these negative outcomes and their disproportionate impact on people of color aren't just a fluke. They are the result of bad ingredients , guidelines , models , formulas that haven't really changed since the 1950s , and that grossly overstate the benefits of freeways while dismissing or ignoring their downsides. We'll dig into the report and how freeways can actually make driving less efficient. After a short break. We're back with Beth Osborne , one of the main authors of Smart Growth America's latest report , Divided by Design. The report analyzes case studies of various freeways in Washington , DC and Atlanta. If you want to get deeper into the numbers , there's a link to the report in the show notes. But here's just a sample. Washington , D.C. builds Interstates 395 and 695. In 1960 , the freeways displaced at least 4700 people in Southwest DC. Once a thriving black and Jewish neighborhood. They took 311 acres of land worth $3.3 billion off the property tax rolls.

S1: You mentioned this earlier , and you've mentioned it in several episodes that this happened all over the country. But I do want to make clear in every metropolitan area , this occurred in some cases it had intention in addition to urban renewal. But urban renewal was often a byproduct. A lot of people were trying to save downtown businesses as suburbanization began , and in their minds at the time , the best way to save them was to create a high speed portal from suburban areas straight to the downtown , and anything in its way was worthy of removal in order to accomplish that goal. It didn't work , but that was also the intention. Well , the reason we wanted to do these case studies was because we rarely look at what was lost. We love quantifying benefits , but the benefits we choose to quantify and transportation in those days and today very little has changed except for the spine of the system is already built. What we quantify is a theoretical benefit of time savings , an estimate that is usually wildly incorrect and not even based on time savings , but a theoretical time savings we assume occurs if you speed up the average vehicle speed. We're not looking at where you start in your finish. We just assume if the cars are moving faster , your trip got shorter , which is not always the case.

S2: Yeah , and explain how that works. I would assume. Let's say I'm driving down the highway at 65 miles an hour. I'm getting my to my destination faster.

S1: One is to speed up your travel at 65mph down that corridor. We have to completely end travel across it. So that roadway now goes through a community. And whereas there used to be dozens of ways across that corridor , now they've been cut off. So now all the people trying to cross the corridor have a longer trip and they have a time loss. We don't quantify that. We don't we don't generally care as much about the people losing time as the people gaining time. The other thing is , think about that main road in your community that has no left hand turn signs all the way down the corridor. Now , that is because it shows in our modeling that the speed of travel down that corridor will be faster. So if you go end to end on that corridor , you will save some time because you won't have to wait behind anybody turning left. But if you are one of those people that needs to go left because your destination is to the left , now you have to turn right three times to go left and you might now have the stop signs and traffic lights on each of those intersections. So while your average speed down that corridor might save you 30s or so now you have to take a bunch of right hand turns and extend your trip and that could take you four minutes. So you lost 3.5 minutes. But the models show that everyone saved time. And it comes down to the fact that we're using 1950s approaches where information wasn't as easily available and crunching all this information took more manpower , money and time. Today we have more capacity. We don't have to say , well , if traffic's going faster here , I'm sure that people's travel time went down. We can actually look at every potential trip. And we have computer power now to crunch the numbers on millions of potential trips. We just don't we continue to assume things that are demonstrably false. And while we are quantifying those savings , we are not quantifying the harms being done to others , both in terms of their travel ability or safety , but also in terms of the property damage of the displacement of the loss of business. And even worse , there's an assumption that if an area , for example , needs a dry cleaner or a grocery , that that need is generally in the air and if you close one , another will open and that evens out in the region. What we show in these case studies is while it might even out , it's often a black neighborhood or a minority neighborhood that loses their small businesses. And it's a wealthier , whiter neighborhood that gains them. And there is a societal cost to that kind of transfer that is utterly and totally ignored to this day. If we quantify at all those impacts.

S2: You jumped right up to my next question. One thing that you try to quantify in this report is the economic loss for people who are displaced by a freeway building. So say I live in the freeway right of way. The government uses eminent domain , forces me to sell my home. And then all of the wealth that I could have built in equity for my family is lost. Devil's advocate here A transportation engineer would of course argue that the my loss is more than offset by the economic growth that was enabled by the freeway that displaced me and that for every home that was lost to a freeway , there were five or 10 or 20 more homes that were built because that new freeway opened up more land for development.

S1: Their disbursement and displacement was seen as a benefit. And so from the leaders at the time the harm caused the black community was of societal good , as was the benefit that was accruing to white communities. I hope we don't ascribe to that today. We do have the same rules in place that is being applied without the intentionality , and we could argue whether or not that is better or worse , but at least it is being done with less racist intent. It's just with some of the same racist results. But beyond that , these are not one for one transfers. These were communities that allowed people to get around to all of their needs with less travel , which means less expense to the household and to the government , less emissions , less runoff. There is a lot less impact to public health , the environment and the economy by the efficiency of that community. And it was replaced by homes that were further afield and disconnected from all the things people needed , requiring a much larger household and public investment to service those folks and connect them to the things they needed. These are also things we refuse to quantify. We believe in the way we do economics and transportation , that if it takes you an hour to get to work , but you moved at free flowing conditions , there is nothing to be fixed there. No one would necessarily value that that distance being shorter because they got to cruise along at the top speed. But if you got to work in ten minutes in stop and go traffic. That's a catastrophe worthy of knocking down homes and businesses to fix. And that is twisted , but it is the standard.

S2: So you worked with an organization , Segregation by Design , to create these animations that show aerial photographs before and after a freeway was built. They've done this for different freeways all across the country. I've gotten to do a couple of these types of visualizations for San Diego. I think it's a really useful tool to help visualize the impacts of freeway building. One thing that I noticed in one of the animations you have for Atlanta is that a lot of the land surrounding the freeway changed as well. So even if you weren't in the direct path of the freeway , your neighborhood was still impacted. You may still have lost your home and your neighbors may have lost their homes as well.

S1: Some of our assumptions were extreme conservative in terms of what property would be impacted by a highway. Now , looking at past highways , we can see exactly what occurred , but we also looked at what would have happened if some highways that were in the queue to be built had been built. We as a society are more willing to dismiss something that was lost decades ago. But looking at what is on the ground today that would have been wiped out tends to hit a little bit harder. So we also use segregated by design to show those and and those incredibly strong neighborhoods today that would not exist today. But your question about what is that area being affected ? We looked at where the highway would be in a little tiny buffer for construction. But in reality , people don't tend to want to have a home where their children will play right next to a a huge six lane highway where the traffic is bowling by at 65mph and trucks are putting pollution into the air. So there's an impact on the value of that land. It tends to turn over homes tend to get bought out for low prices , to be converted into more industrial uses , maintenance yards or mechanic facilities.

S3: Or storage. Facilities.

S2: Facilities.

S1: Yeah , just those things that have actually are convenient by being close to where the cars go. You also see communities buying way bigger of a right of way for the highway than they actually needed. Because while you're taking a bunch of houses , take them all and then you could use that for future expansions for for other purposes. And also , once your community is gone , a whole lot of people left because they were just the remnants of a community. Their their family , their friends , their businesses , their schools were gone. So yeah , all those factors just lead to the turnover of the community into something less productive and more desolate.

S2: Coming up , the problems with trying to translate time into dollars and cents. And Beth reflects on her career in transportation policy making in Washington , DC. Stay with us. We're back. And here's the rest of my interview with Beth Osborne , co-author of Smart Growth America's latest report , Divided by Design. One thing that I found really fascinating in your report was its dissection of the value of time and how this concept is baked into so much of the government's decision making about where and how and when to build freeways. So explain to me what this concept is , the value of time and why you think it's wrong and misguided.

S1: Yeah , it's another important question , and that is , you know , how do we quantify the benefits of these this highway system ? And usually the benefits are this concept of saving time. So you want to put a value to what that time savings is and the guidance on how to quantify and monetize these benefits is put out by the Secretary of Transportation. It was most recently updated , I believe , in 2016 and I think before that in 2011 the changes weren't substantial and it has a lot of very interesting things in there , some of which I've already mentioned. The assumption is if the cars are going faster , people are saving time. Well , A , our transportation models that show the impact of giving drivers more space have been proven wrong repeatedly , and yet they're allowed to be utilized and show benefit us Dot seems unperturbed by the fact that they are totally inaccurate and we rely on them to determine environmental impact , public health impact and equity impacts and they're allowed to stand for some reason. US Dot doesn't even require that folks check their assumptions and just report whether or not they got them close to right. Accuracy also seems undesirable , uninteresting. I don't know. Two Just because the cars are going faster doesn't mean the trip was faster because distance is part of the equation. Now. Dots don't control that completely , except for sometimes the way they lay down the highways displaces some of the destinations and pushes them further out. And I did listen to your episode with my friend and colleague , Chuck Moran , and he pointed out that when you see traffic congestion , what you're seeing is an unmet need for local travel and local options. And a lot of what we do in transportation is speed up the travel , removes those local options , displaces those local options and forces people to go further. But because they're going faster , we see that as a time savings. Even though people are spending more time traveling to the things that they need because we're not looking at real trips. And the other thing is we don't look at what an economist would call the dis benefits. So , yes , we're benefiting people on this corridor , but we're not looking at whether or not there's impact to people crossing the corridor , coming on the corridor for short period of time , walking as opposed to driving or bicycling or taking transit. We don't consider that we are picking winners and losers and we're not even trying to quantify who the losers are and then subtract it from the benefits. So the guidance is just deeply , deeply flawed in multiple ways. It's not legislatively required , so it is questionable why it is allowed to stand.

S2: And the amount of time that Departments of Transportation are allowed to include to come up with a dollar amount of how much money we're actually saving or how much economic activity we're creating , there's no floor to it. So you could create a project that , according to your models , will save a driver three seconds. And then you multiply that by however many thousands of people you think that it will benefit and you come up with a dollar amount. As if saving three seconds for anyone is actually quantifiable or that amount is actually creating some sort of economic benefit.

S1: You seem to be suggesting that people aren't going to invent the cure to cancer with three seconds of time saving. Yeah , no , you're absolutely right. It is one of the more galling aspects of the guidance. It specifically says that we should not designate a floor to those benefits. So it allows an intersection improvement to theoretically save each driver 10s each. And then you add it or you multiply it times the number of people in that intersection. And that is preposterous. And in fact , a time savings below ten minutes is often just economic noise. It's not it's impossible to quantify. And the other thing is over the the life of the project. So. Theoretically don't have to come back and resurface or give a facelift to a project for 20 years. 20 years , you know that it's going to be 10s of savings for 20 years. You know how many people are going to live in that area or what the economy is going to be like in 20 years ? The fact of the matter is we can't predict things that far. Our numbers are garbage.

S2: And something also that really shocked me with how we use this mechanism of value of time is that it can be scaled to an area's income. So helping commuters get to work faster. Commuters who live in a wealthy neighborhood because their incomes are higher , that is seen as more valuable than doing the same thing for a poor neighborhood where incomes are lower. Tell me about that.

S1: You know , you said it very well and it goes deeper than that. So since the concept of time savings is totally connected to vehicle speed , not actual time savings , it means that what we're looking at , this is all an effort to get rid of any congested conditions anywhere , no matter how many people are doing the same thing at the same time. So if there's eight football games a year , that's a catastrophe because there was slow traffic on the the Saturday of the football game , even if it's fine the rest of the year. How this plays out in the regular course of business is we worry about the white collar commute , the morning rush and the afternoon , the evening rush , which is dominated by white collar workers , often coming from suburban areas into urban centers for white collar jobs and returning at night. If you are a lower income worker , a shift worker , a medical worker , and you are traveling off hours , your time savings , it's not measured really at all. You could quantify time savings if a more direct transit route was created. But since all of these benefits were created to justify reducing congestion and building highways , they are somewhat inartful in quantifying those other kinds of trips. And so that's a second way that non upper class white collar trips are undervalued. Further a non commute trip. All the other trips you take in your life , which is about 80% of our trips , the grocery picking up your kids from school , medical visits , retail visits , all those sorts of things. They're very hard to quantify. And in fact , the value of time guidance says they don't know how to quantify it. Well , any parent can tell you that if you are late to pick up your kid from school or after care or daycare , it is very specific , quantified. They tend to charge you a dollar a minute. And yet US dot doesn't see see any way to create quantification for time savings on those trips. And those trips tend to be shorter and they tend to be trips particularly for low income people that are taken outside of a car. So there are so many ways where the application of this approach is inequitable and it hurts single parents , it hurts lower income people. It's understandable in its origin and where it came from. But the fact that we haven't figured out how to do better in a time where information is so readily available and so easily crunched is just it's beyond disappointing.

S2: You spent much of your career working in Washington , D.C. You worked on Capitol Hill. You worked in the US Department of Transportation and the Obama administration.

S1: I think it came in stages. I didn't start out thinking I was going to work in transportation in my first job on Capitol Hill. For Congressman Ron Clark from the Pittsburgh region , I worked more in environmental policy and particularly air quality and transportation just kept coming up and up and up , not just in air quality , but in water quality , in the greenhouse effect and heat islands , those sorts of things just over and over. And I started to move more in that direction. But even if you go before I even thought about working in Washington DC , I went to school in Baton Rouge. I went to Louisiana State University for college and law school , and there was a time where I really needed a job. To make ends meet while I was in school , but the only jobs I could find required a car to get there. But I was already struggling to make ends meet , so I couldn't afford a car without a job. But I couldn't get to a job until I could afford a car. And luckily , I come from a family where my parents could buy my way out of that problem. But that always stuck with me that we set up a system where we created an expensive barrier to enter the economy and then held it against people. It's unbelievably wasteful and inefficient as a nation to block people's ability to participate in the economy and pay their own bills. But we literally do that with the transportation system. Unless you can buy your way out of the problem , pay the cover charge to participate. And when I moved to Washington , DC , that used car that my parents had bought me is what I sold to get started here. And when I moved here , my now husband and I , we bought a condo with the well , I was going to say with the money we would have spent on a car , but it was really that that money was only available because we didn't have to have a car. So whereas other people are spending all this money on an asset that loses value as soon as you sign your name to buy it. We bought an asset that increases in value and we also just got to have more fun. Frankly , without a car , we were able to travel and have fun trips and save money for retirement and for our future and to be able to buy a bigger house and things like that. So the the economic impact of the transportation system is something I felt very personally. And then the more I got deep into transportation , the more I saw that the things that I value , that normal people quantify in terms of their own success don't register at all in transportation economics , and what registers to them is ethereal and theoretical and often undermining of those things that determine a human being success in this country.

S2: So a broader theme I took away from this report and you touched on it already , is that comparing today to the 1950s , we have so much more sophisticated methods of measuring speeds , of measuring the distance of trips , the length of time that they take. And yet we're not using that more sophisticated data and methods. We're still relying on these very crude and imprecise models to make decisions about how to spend billions in taxpayer dollars and its leading to bad outcomes. My question for you is why ? Like , how did it get this bad ? You said it's transportation is a bipartisan issue.


S1: Not an easy question to answer , and there are many layers to it. I think our our program is a trust funded program. When we pay licensing fees , we buy tires , we pay for gasoline there , taxes there , and fees that go into a trust fund. And it means that the transportation program doesn't have to be considered every year when Congress or legislatures pass their budget. If you are trying to deal with all issues and one issue isn't a problem , but every five years or so , you're not going to be as familiar with it. So I think our trust fund , while it creates convenience for building projects , also protects the program from oversight and from a knowledgeable political class to do that oversight even when it is conducted. So we have bipartisanship , but both parties have agreed to throw over all their priorities and agree to do something. I mean , this this program undermines Republican and Democratic priorities equally and thoroughly. And yet they're very excited to join forces and and undermine everything they claim to believe in. So that's strange. But I think it comes down to ignorance and the fact that the trust fund makes it hard to focus on. There are members of the US House who have a whole career without one vote on a transportation bill. So , you know , it's hard to become expert on things that don't even come up in your tenure.


S1: Well , that's not fair. I think that there is an appetite amongst many of the talented appointees at us Dot. I don't think that same appetite exists at the White House and all those appointees at us dot work for the president and the White House and therefore they need leadership from there. I think the White House views transportation is a good news story and they have a lot to deal with. And throughout my career that goes back to the Clinton administration , Transportation is always the top priority and the second tier of priorities. The problem is you never get through the first tier of priorities. So look , look at all the issues we have to deal with today. You understand why if people are mostly just ignoring transportation and you can still get coverage that says any any new highway or expansion is good , ignore ignoring all the impacts. Just let it do its thing and stay focused on these other things that are are screaming at you in the moment. Picking a fight with folks on Capitol Hill over change and change always results in someone opposing it is just not very attractive , but getting things right. I think the White House is concerned about the wrong things there , so I'd like to see them start to to evaluate the accuracy of what we use to provide more modern information to and to study it and use that as a basis for a conversation about where we should go. If the parties disagree at that point , then we can figure out how much of a fight you want to take. But ducking accurate information , which has been what I've seen from all administrations since I moved to Washington , D.C. it's just so irresponsible. And it tells me on some level they know. They know it's bad. That's why they don't want to check.

S2: That was Beth Osborne of Smart Growth America. Again , check the show notes for a link to their report , Divided by Design , as well as a really cool , shareable video on the value of time. Freeway Exit is produced by me , Andrew Bowen and is edited by Brooke Ruth. If you've told a friend or family member about this podcast , thank you so much. I can see our audience numbers growing. If you haven't , please spread the word. We want more people to hear these stories of how freeways have impacted our country and our communities , and word of mouth is the best way for us to grow our audience. You can also leave us a rating and a review and your favorite podcast app. And we greatly appreciate all of you who have donated to Kpbs , a nonprofit news organization that provides this journalism as a public service. Thanks for listening.

Our methods for measuring the economic impact of freeways are rooted in 1950s logic. A new report, "Divided by Design" from Smart Growth America, uncovers just how much they leave out. Co-author Beth Osborne says we tend to overestimate how much time and money we'll save on freeways. And we ignore the ways in which freeways can sometimes make trips longer.


Read "Divided by Design."
Watch an explainer on the value of time.