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Part 1: Mark Baumer Reflection: Impounding Vehicles & Immigrant Rights

This is part of a multi-part reflection I've been doing following the death of my friend, Mark Baumer . There's nothing graphic i...

Could Providence Achieve Oslo's Car-Free City Center Plan?

In 2015, the government of Oslo, Norway declared its commitment to removing cars from its city center. A recent Streetfilm on Oslo highlights some of the successes the city has already had, as it focuses in on 2019 as the endpoint by which to achieve its car-free goal.

As Streetfilms points out, Oslo doesn't intend to completely remove all vehicles from the city center, but instead wants to get as close as physically possible to getting rid of private vehicles. So some of the changes involve car-sharing programs. But a surprisingly large amount of the city's plan to move away from cars involves walking, biking, and transit. 

One especially exciting goal is the removal of all street parking from downtown Oslo. The city is making progress on this goal, turning car parking into protected bike lanes. Sometimes existing protected bike lanes are being expanded as part of the sidewalk, and what was previously parking is becoming the new bikeway. Transport Providence did an analysis of Providence's streets that concluded that a very small percentage of on-street parking removal could lead to a pretty hefty change in the amount of bike amenities the city has. Some Providence-based firms, like Park with Spotter have started making it easier to find parking spots in the city in people's driveways, which could hopefully lead to better public support for parking removal in Providence. The city of Zurich, Switzerland has a policy of parking neutrality, whereby when new parking spaces are added somewhere in the city, the developer is responsible to remove them somewhere else, and that has led to great success, as reported on by Streetfilms and UConn engineering professor Norman Garrick.

Providence to Oslo Comparison

One of the questions that comes up when European capitals do ambitious things with their transportation is whether Providence can really expect to be able to achieve the same. The honest verdict is that some changes will take time, while others can be done quickly and without delay.

Oslo has around 700,000 inhabitants (a Boston-sized figure), but its density is around 3,500/sq. mile. For comparison, Providence's density is almost 9,700/sq. mile. But the way that Oslo's borders are set up obviously make this somewhat of an apples-to-oranges figure. Just looking at a map shows that a lot of land in Oslo is relatively uninhabited green space. I would ballpark maybe a quarter of this area being taken up by inhabited space, so the density of that inhabited area is more like 14,000/ sq. mile (I got that by multiplying 3,500/sq. mile x 4, which I'm not certain is methodologically sound, but makes sense to me).

The immediate result of this figure tempers the idea that Providence is denser than Oslo, but I'm not so sure it torpedoes the comparison, even so. This image shows parts of the state that are roughly within 5 miles of Kennedy Plaza, as the bird flies. 5 miles takes you a lot farther than you'd imagine, in Rhode Island:

Providence's population is fairly squeezed together: although the state itself is thought of as being the yardstick for "small", the places that have significant population are even smaller. If we think of Oslo as including a very dense city center, but also many of its suburbs, thinking about how that might play out in a Providence-centric view is helpful. Transport Providence once did a comparison of Portland, Oregon proper and Providence plus Cranston, East Providence, Pawtucket, and Central Falls, and found that the latter combination was only 60% the size of Portland-proper and of a similar combined density. If RIPTA improved the speed and directness of certain routes, like the 54 to Woonsocket or the 60 to Newport/Bristol/Warren, then areas outside of that pale could also be better connected to Providence without cars. Rhode Island has a very low level of state support for transit: Massachusetts spends about 4.5 times as much per capita on transit as Rhode Island does, and as Jarrett Walker pointed out recently at his Providence transit conference keynote, transit spending matters.

Oslo is also not as urban as one might imagine. When you start to tease out the neighborhoods on Streetview that make it into the definition of "Oslo", it's clear that not all of them are as dense as one might think. For instance, look at some of these:

These, too, are part of "Oslo." None of these Streetviews is from out in the hinterland of green on the map. They are all from within the urbanized part of Oslo (albeit nearer to the edges of that urbanized area). So while overall the land use in Norway might be preferable to that in Rhode Island, it's not idyllic: people who live in housing like this are not set up perfectly for car-free lives, and yet the population is working to create car-lite lifestyles.

In Some Ways Land Use Doesn't Matter

Density matters most for transit, and there is no doubt that transit is important to moving people out of cars. But the most easily achieved goals for Providence are not transit-related, but built around walking, biking, and parking.

Providence has an overabundance of parking, and both the city and state have made mistakes to worsen that problem. The Providence Journal reported recently that the $3.1 million dollar parking lot that the state purchased near the Statehouse (while simultaneously building another out of the Statehouse lawn) remains half-empty. Transport Providence has long called for the state to allow Providence to tax parking lots, so that it can use the revenue to lower property taxes and encourage affordable development and infill.

Hembrow explores density, which he posits is irrelevant to biking. See more
Removing street parking is easy, and can be done overnight as the city experiments with biking and walking routes. It's also easily reversed, meaning that the city can see these as experimental opportunities instead of things to be planned and fretted over for years at a time. Since there is no shortage of parking off-street in Providence, city officials should have nothing to fear in this proposal. Biking does not depend on density, as David Hembrow has shown, so it can be encouraged through infrastructure changes even when a city is in the infancy of its readiness for transit.

The Oslo proposal only removes cars from the city center, so taken that way, the land use of the entire region is less important. Providence's downtown blocks around Kennedy Plaza, Thayer Street, and other locations that are heavily frequented by transit and pedestrians should be beginning points for experimentation in car-free zones. The widely-lauded PVD Fest shows that when cars are removed from an even larger area of Downcity than that, the city becomes nicer to be in, and still draws lots of outsiders. In the same way that people living in car-oriented suburbs of Long Island understand that when they visit New York City, they should leave their cars behind, people living in the outer reaches of Rhode Island and Southeastern Mass. should understand that Providence is not a convenient place for driving-- but is a great place to visit without a car.

Why Econ. 101 Isn't Enough to Discuss the Car Tax

If you've missed it, Economic Progress RI wrote a very good report explaining the complexities of the Rhode Island car tax. I have hectored them annoyingly for some time by email, and I felt really validated when their report concluded pretty much the same things I've been saying on a number of different fronts. Read it.

I got into a bit of a scuffle online with Sam Bell about this. Sam is a great person for this kind of debate, because 1. We both know we more or less have the same guiding values, and 2. We are both able to be really pedantic and snotty and sarcastic and vicious online and still be friends. So Sam's a good guy. Sam Twitter-summoned Doug Hall, an economist at Economic Progress RI, and Doug had this to say:

The argument Sam makes boils down to this: poor people may pay less car tax, but that absolute amount is more of their income than the larger amount that wealthier people pay is of their income. I actually agree with aspects of this statement, if it's bounded only by people who own cars. Poor car owners get more back, should be how it's stated.

And that's a significant exception, in my opinion. It's like saying, "Jacksonian Democracy was a very equalizing force." Well, er, maybe, if you discount the impacts it had on the Cherokee and African-American slaves. Or "Donald Trump is a populist." Oh really? A populist for who?

The demographics of who can and does own a car mean that trying to fit economic redistribution through a car tax funnel ends up producing some really distorted results. And that was one of the major findings that was brought up in the Economic Progress RI report: Yes, it's true! People of color are far more likely to live in places where the car tax is high. But they are also far more likely not to own a car. So the person living in Olneyville who owns no car is not likely to breath a big sigh of relief knowing that an East Sider somewhere got a tax cut on his/her Priuses (Prii?). People of color are left out, and I'm sorry, but that matters:
Sam's chart (Yes, I love Sam so much, because he made a chart!) is also wrong because it ignores the multiple columns of information you need to make a decision about regressiveness:
1. First you need to know what the percentage of a person's income is paid (Sam has this).

2. But you also need to know what the money goes to (Who benefits most from the services?).

The question asked has to not just be who pays a tax and what percentage of their income that tax is, but who benefits from services and percentage that is. If giving a poorer person $100 entails giving a wealthier person $1,000, it may be that the $1,000 is a small part of the wealthier person's income, but that $1,000 also perhaps enabled the poorer person to gain $300 in services (these numbers are hypothetical). If you gain $100 and lose $300, that's not a gain. So then the tax cut looks like this: Poor -$200 tax cut (pay $200 extra) Rich: $1,000 (get a $1,000 tax cut). 

I don't actually know for sure how Rhode Island's benefits are divided, and it's a valid question. But what we're essentially doing is deciding that driving is a benefit, and that we should budget to subsidize it for those who have the capital to buy a car. That's a decision, and we have to weigh that against other decisions, like maybe having free healthcare, or better schools. I worry that this is going to result in a push for fewer services.

3. What alternatives exist to the proposal as a means of giving people tax cuts? That is, the world doesn't exist on a binary within one issue. If lowering the car tax could give some money to poor people, the question also has to be asked if another policy would give more money to poor people, at the same or lesser cost. Look at how much we're spending on the upper 20% versus the lower 40%. Inexcusable:
Sam doesn't think this matters, but it does. Because the 34% of the budgeted $215 million is enough to give a major tax cut to poor people that is instead not being given. Opportunity costs matter, and considering all the varying spectra of possibilities that different policies afford is what makes real life economics different that Econ. 101.

Look at how the absolute numbers play out:
$97 to me is more than $1,849 is to a millionaire, but if we just increased the Earned Income Tax Credit, the policy chart might like more like this:

Bottom 20%  2nd 20%  Middle 20%  Fourth 20% Last 20%

$537               $358         $179                $0                  Pay an extra $179

(I took $215 million, divided it by 6, gave three parts to the lowest 20%, two parts to the second lowest, and one part to the middle, zero to the fourth 20%, and had the top 20% pay an extra $179. We actually don't end up spending our whole $215 million that way, because of the top 20% tax-- maybe we could put that to transit. And remember, I did this by assuming the population of RI includes children, so that means if you lived in a family with kids, my calculation could give you an extra stipend for each of your kids).

The point is, giving (some) poor people $97 from a car tax reduction is better than giving them $50, and somewhat better still than cutting their hands off, but that doesn't mean that we have to view everything through the lens of that policy. The money could be divided up in an infinite number of ways, and there are far more progressive ways to do it than anything that's been proposed. So let's have some imagination!

4. Finally, it's paternalistic to suppose that what poor people really need is a car. Poor people might like a nicer apartment or house, or one that's closer to work so that they don't need that pesky car (or one near their kid's school! Or a better school!). They may want more vacation time, or they may want better food. They may want a couch, or time and money to take an art class, or whatever else. Assuming that we should artificially lower the price of driving isn't just about giving money to poor people. Even if we got past the imperfect metrics by which that is being accomplished-- I would argue this is a piss-poor plan for redistribution-- we could do this without the element of car subsidization.  Driving can be a freeing thing, but when driving is made a necessary thing, it is no longer freeing. Unfortunately, the web of subsidies for cars are part of what enslaves people to them, because it changes every decision that everyone in the web makes: employers move further away, transit systems wither without riders, housing in inner-cities decays in value (or in the case of expensive and gentrifying neighborhoods may seem like a bad deal if policy priorities subsidize car commutes from further away rather than upgrades to housing location). When the recipient of this car tax refund finds themselves living further away from work to afford the rent but (thankfully) having a car so that they can sit in traffic and be stuck away from their family, we can thank bad policy decisions for creating their unhappiness.

All of that creates a situation where the very poor-- those people left out of driving-- get nothing. That's unfair, no matter how you swing it.

5. Climate Change:

I don't have to explain this, do I? If we don't fix climate change, then we're toast. 

So Sam is wrong, mainly because he's taking something that Economic Progress RI admitted is a very complex, multivariable problem, and reducing it to one variable as if it's an Econ. 101 demo. I think this is misleading. Sam should rethink this.