April 20, 2006
We've Moved! Cascadia Scorecard Weblog is now the Daily Score
Short story: Go to the Daily Score to get started on the Cascadia Scorecard Weblog's new home.
Longer story: Big news from Northwest Environment Watch. First, we're not Northwest Environment Watch anymore. We're Sightline Institute. Get the full scoop on the name change here, and rest assured that we've only changed our name--not our mission.
Second, we're also debuting a schmancy new website that we intend to be a phenomenal resource to exactly the kind of outspoken, active Cascadians that have been frequenting this blog (ie, you).
This includes a new home for the Cascadia Scorecard Weblog, and a new name: The Daily Score.
Same authors, same type of content, but--we hope--much more usable and searchable. (All 1100-plus posts from this blog are archived on the Daily Score, and the whole site is powered by a search engine on steroids--really.)
Two important notes about commenting:
1. Commenting now requires that you register with our site, a very quick process.
2. If you've been receiving any email updates from Northwest Environment Watch, you are already pre-registered with sightline.org. Go here to get your password.
3. Sorry, but we weren't able to transfer over any of the comments from this blog so we encourage you all to repopulate the Daily Score with your two cents.
Thanks for sticking with us for the past two years!
- The staff at Sightline.
April 19, 2006
Rush Hour, By the Numbers
Sorry to be so Seattle-centric...but this post about Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct got me thinking. If the Viaduct is closed--whether for construction of a tunnel or a new aerial highway, or to make way for green space and a surface street--what happens to rush hour? Does traffic in downtown Seattle get hopelessly snarled, and stay that way for at least 3 years? Or do city transportation have some reasonable options for keeping people moving through the downtown core, even without a Viaduct?
Traffic studies show that the Viaduct carries about 105,000 daily trips. But most of those trips are at off-peak times when the surface streets have plenty of extra capacity. Sure, a trip along the Viaduct-less corridor would take a little longer than it does now; but the steet grid could easily handle the load.
But at rush hour -- particularly the afternoon -- there's precious little extra capacity on the city streets. So the thorniest problem that traffic planners will have to face will be accomodating rush hour trips on the street grid and I-5, during the busiest part of the day.
So, how many trips is that, exactly? And what are the options for dealing with the added load?
Earlier this week, the helpful and responsive folks at the Seattle Department of Transportation sent me some data that may help shed some light. As far as I can tell, it boils down to this: without the Viaduct, transportation planners will have to figure out how to accomodate the equivalent of 11,000 rush-hour car trips through the busiest part of downtown. Can they do it?
Sims Gets On The Bus
I'm stunned by King County Exec Ron Sims' proposal to increase the sales tax to fund better bus service. For an additional 1/10th of a penny per dollar, Sims believes the county can drastically improve bus service--increasing the frequency and speed of routes and adding capacity to boot. (The Seattle Times reports; the P-I editorializes in favor.)
I have no idea what prompted Sims' outburst of sanity. These days, Puget Sound residents are accustomed to pony up for outlandish schemes of miracle monorails, glammed-out streetcars, multi-billion dollar tunnels, and vast highway expansion measures. (Not to mention problem-plagued light rail, the one transit option that's almost a reality.) Buses, on the other hand, are not especially sexy and they don't come with big-ticket political bragging rights. They're just staid, effective, flexible, and affordable. And--oh yes--they're already working so well that they're over-subscribed, at least in the city.
So on the upside, Sims' bus boosting proposal will improve mobility in the near future. On the downside, it doesn't promise flying saucers or citizen jet-packs, and it doesn't come with a flock of crazy-eyed proponents. (I do have a non-humorous quibble; but more on that later...)
April 17, 2006
Dead Man Walking
Transit and walking are time consuming. Most people are just too busy. That’s obvious, right?
1. Time spent on transit is different from time spent driving. People vary, of course, but for me, transit time is a pure gain over driving. I don’t enjoy driving. I’d rather read than listen to music or talk radio. And I can read without queasiness on all forms of transit. For me, then, car time is a waste of life, but transit time is living, and I’ll happily choose a 30 minute transit trip over a 15 minute car trip. For me, driving is time consuming.
2. Just so, walking doesn’t consume time, for different reasons. In fact, walking creates time. For one thing, if you walk for transportation, you don’t have to go to the gym as often.
More profoundly, walking gives you time you wouldn’t otherwise have at all. Walking makes you live longer, as Clark posted here. The largest ever study of the subject found that walking 30 minutes a day, five days a week, adds 1.3-1.5 years to your life, on average. (More vigorous exercise adds even more.) On reasonable assumptions (detailed below the fold), this relationship means that for every minute you spend walking, you get three back.
Time spent walking, then, is utterly free. It’s time you would have spent dead.
Nowadays, when I’m walking, I get a little pleasure in the thought that I’m cheating death, that every minute I spend afoot is an extra moment of life.
April 14, 2006
With the introduction of flat screens and HDTV, Americans are expected to toss over half a billion analog TV sets and computer monitors--containing thousands of tons of lead and other persistent toxins--in just the next three years.
This fact, combined with the momentum of e-waste legislation at the state level, means a new (big fat) liability has reared its ugly head on electronics companies' balance sheets.
A couple of weeks ago I blogged on the recent passage of e-waste legislation in Washington State. This week’s edition of Business Week covered the issue too, mostly by patting Hewlett-Packard Co. on the back for being an industry leader on the issue (HP was involved in helping draft and pass the Washington legislation). HP believes a proactive approach to e-waste will translate to bigger profits and a wider range of product offerings. Love all that.
The article goes on to expose those companies and sectors that are dragging their feet –notably the TV sector (and, oddly, Apple Computer, counter to their progressive image). Here’s the passage that struck me most:
“But manufacturers have many concerns, including the fact that take-back laws such as Maine's allocate costs based on the weight of the junk consumers return. Consider the implications for big picture tubes: A company like LG Electronics, which owns the Zenith brand, could end up being responsible for heaps of old Zenith TVs, even though LG's market share is relatively small. And IBM, which has abandoned the PC market, might still be forced to recycle millions of machines bearing its logo. "They're really discriminating against legacy manufacturers," says coalition spokesman David A. Thompson, director of Panasonic Corp.'s Corporate Environmental Dept. "New market entrants have no waste stream. They're getting a free ride in Maine and Washington."“ (emphasis added by me)
How much do you want to bet that when LG bought Zenith (or whatever company owned Zenith at the time), there was no line on Zenith’s balance sheet that said:
“Long-term liability: toxics installed in millions of homes; cost unknown and potentially enormous.”
April 13, 2006
There have been a couple of interesting energy stories in the news for the last few days. First, from BC comes this story, about what happened when the provincial electric utility asked for proposals to ramp up generating capacity in the province:
Green power projects, including small hydro and wind facilities, comprise the overwhelming majority of private-sector bids submitted to BC Hydro in an ambitious call for new sources of electricity for British Columbia...more than twice the amount Hydro was expecting when it issued an open call for tenders last December, and equivalent to about 10 per cent of B.C.'s existing electricity supply.
Now, obviously, not all of that capacity will be built, at least not at first; but it's still a promising development that so many green-power proposals were tendered. The bigger news, perhaps, was that not a single new natural gas power plant was proposed. Not one. Apparently, the high and fluctuating price of natural gas is making it harder for such plants to pencil out. What a change from a few years ago, when, in the wake of the 2001 power crisis -- and despite all the press attention that new wind farms got -- the Pacific NW added 17 times as much generating capacity from natural gas as from wind power.
And then (hat tip to Matt Leber) comes this news: the Seattle Steam company, which generates heat for a number of the buildlings in the downtown core, is planning to switch from natural gas burners to wood. At some level this is troubling; burning wood for energy didn't do the forests of New England any good. But Denmark has had good success with heat & power plants that run from biomass; so perhaps this isn't something to worry about yet. To add to the good news, Seattle Steam is considering adding combined heat-power facility to its other downtown plant. They're massively efficient, since the residual heat that's left over after the electricity is generated is used warm local buildings. If a combined heat-power plant designed right, less than 10 percent of the energy is wasted, compared with 40-65 percent for conventional plants.
It's interesting to see what Jaime Lerner -- the legendary mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, who created a world-class bus rapid transit system on a shoestring budget -- had to say about Seattle transportation, in a question-and-answer session with the Seattle P-I:
Is there a way to create dedicated bus lanes in a cramped city like Seattle?
"There are many ways, many corridors where you can have a really good system. ... Sometimes you think, 'Aaah we don't have enough space.' ... There's always a good solution."
How long does it typically take to set up a bus rapid transit system?
"You can build in two years a good system. It's not difficult, because it has not too much public works. It's very simple.
I tend to agree: bus rapid transit is far more viable than most people think. It's cheaper, faster to deploy, and more flexible than rail. Now that Seattle's monorail has been - uh - derailed, it's a solution that's worth considering for the corridor that the monorail was designed to serve.
And then there's this:
Some people say that if the viaduct were replaced with nothing but a surface road, heavy traffic along the waterfront would ruin it. Do you agree?
"If you provide good alternatives for public transport, you won't have traffic problems. ... Can you imagine how much better the city could become with 30 percent less of the cars running in the street? It's very easy. The main issue is having good public transport and after, if it's needed, the wall to protect the waterfront -- I don't have the answer to that. But definitely it's not the viaduct."
Seems as if the P-I editorial board may be inching towards the same conclusion.
Another week, another anti-city screed from the Seattle Weekly's Knute Berger. There's lots to pick apart in this week's column by "Mossback," but I'll restrain myself.
According to Berger, increasing density won't address sprawl on the urban fringe because:
Big growth in downtown Seattle won't be a sponge for regional growth. In fact, it will likely drive additional growth in the region—just look at the San Francisco Bay Area, which has sprawled endlessly despite San Francisco's higher densities and incomes. A Seattle boom will generate more sprawl and more density, in part because we don't have the strict growth controls in place to truly limit it.
Berger's argument is a lovely compliment to sprawl industry flaks whose mantra is: we can't have growth controls because there's nowhere to build in the cities. But Berger doesn't want density because the growth controls aren't strong enough. No density without growth controls; no growth controls with density. This leaves us in a bit of a pickle.
The obvious solution that Berger overlooks is that increasing density can indeed help corral sprawl. Can density solve the problem all by itself? Of course not. Does that mean density is worthless for controlling sprawl? Again, of course not. Growth boundaries on the urban fringe are important too; and so is smart planning. (That is, density is a necessary condition of growth management, but it's not a sufficient one.)
Definitive proof that density reduces sprawl is hard to come by, but I can get close.
Toxic (Press) Releases
Good news about pollution? The US EPA says so. This Washington Post story makes it seem like the US made great strides in reducing toxic emissions in 2004.
The Environmental Protection Agency said Wednesday that chemical pollution released into the environment fell more than 4 percent from 2003 to 2004...The agency said releases of dioxin and dioxin compounds fell 58 percent; mercury and mercury compounds were cut 16 percent; and PCBs went down 92 percent. [Emphasis added.]
Now, the fall in dioxins in particular seemed like pretty big news. But it also struck me as a bit suspicious. So I looked into the numbers a bit.
The EPA's Toxics Release Inventory Explorer is pretty simple to use, so it didn't take long to zero in on why, exactly, dioxin emissions fell so much. The basic scoop -- it's not so much that dioxin emissions fell in 2004, as that they spiked in 2003. The nation's dioxin emissions (at least, those captured by the TRI) in 2004 were comparable to levels from 2000 through 2002. The 58 percent "decline" was just relative to 2003, which was abnormally high.
Then the question becomes -- what happened in 2003? Apparently, there was a single wood-preserving facility in Lousiana that was responsible for the 2003 spike. (I don't know for sure, but I'd guess they landfilled a bunch of contaminated waste.)
So the national "good news" story about dioxins in 2004--a 58 percent decline in releases--turns out to be, if anything, a bad news story about 2003. Or, more properly, it's an artifact of the way the data are reported: the dioxin "released" in 2003 was likely just transferred from one place to another, in a way that triggered EPA's reporting requirements.
The thing is, it took just a few minutes to figure out that the EPA's press release was, at least in part, full of hot air. Obviously, reporters are under tremendous pressure to churn out stories. But I do wish that basic fact-checking was a higher priority for them. Bum facts passed off as "good news" should be recognized for what they are: a form of toxic information pollution.
April 11, 2006
Driving With Alcohol
Alcohol can lead to all kinds of unintended consequences, but who knew it could lead to energy independence? Apparently, the Brazilians did. Processing sugar cane into ethanol is expected to help Brazil meet its rising energy demands in a big way. According to an article in the New York Times, officials expect that within a year the country will become fully energy self-sufficient thanks largely to putting sugar in gas tanks.
Brazil's story is encouraging, but it's hard to know precisely what conclusions to draw for North Americans.
We can't buy Brazil's success by importing cane-based ethanol because our current policy regime all but disallows it. The US (and Europe too) slaps stiff duties on sugar imports--to the tune of 54 cents a gallon on cane-based ethanol imports, enough to render Brazilian ethanol at a competitive disadvantage.
We can't copy Brazil's success because our colder latitudes don't support sugar cane. Even Florida is considered only marginally productive for sugar cane and it comes at a horrific cost to ecological treasures like the Everglades. Hawaii produces sugar too, but its land base is far too small to meet American demand.
We can't imitate Brazil's success with northern crops like corn because producing corn-based ethanol is far too energy intensive.