April 30, 2004
Better by the mile
Pay-as-you-drive auto insurance (PAYD) is among the most promising innovations for resolving the transportation problems that plague the Northwest. It also makes sense actuarially. But although consumer interest in PAYD is high, insurance companies—who are understandably a little risk-averse—have been slow to give it a try.
On that front, here’s a promising step: GMAC and OnStar—a satellite navigation system installed in many GM cars—have teamed up to offer mileage-based insurance discounts to OnStar subscribers. Participants may save from 5 to 40 percent annually on insurance, depending on the miles they drive. The program is currently are available in four states: Arizona, Indiana, Illinois, and Pennsylvania. But if it’s successful, it will expand to more. For more information, go here.
In addition, Maryland and Connecticut—which sees PAYD as a promising measure for reducing greenhouse gas emissions—are inching toward the kind of incentives that Oregon passed last year.
This jars with my intuition. The commercial sector sector (office buildings and stores) has been growing quickly in the Northwest: the share of jobs in service industries has risen, at the expense of industry and resource extraction jobs. But despite these increases in commercial sector jobs, commercial energy consumption per capita has remained roughly flat in the Northwest states for decades.
The study itself urges caution in interpreting the findings about office buildings. But it certainly suggests that, despite the many advances in energy-efficient lighting, our newer buildings could still be far more efficient than they are.
Air Force Won
From today's Con.Web -- an Air Force base in eastern Washington is going 100% renewable for its electricity:
"Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane has made what is reportedly the largest single green power purchase in the Northwest. The equivalent of its entire 7.5 average megawatt load is now accounted for by a combination of renewables and green tags from Bonneville Power Administration, for which the base pays a slight premium above its rate as a direct service BPA customer. "
By itself, this isn't huge news, since it represents a tiny share of total energy consumption in the Northwest. But the U.S. military has incredible purchasing power, and this seems to be part of a rising trend towards greener energy purchasing on military bases. If all military and government installations followed Fairchild's lead, it could lend a big boost to renewable generation.
Sometimes the right way is the Air Force way.
Then and Now
Anyone know of similar photos of other Cascadian cities and towns?
5/3 Update: Rachel Severson sent in this link for a downtown Seattle comparison. It shows 1907 (!) and 2002.
April 29, 2004
The federal government in Washington, D.C., has a worrisome new plan to save the mighty swimmers that are Cascadia's totem: redefine extinction. According to this reasoning, if salmon survive in hatcheries, we don’t need many of them spawning in our rivers. Local salmon scientists aren’t pleased.
Bad Air Days
Air pollution in cities in the Northwest is covered by a report released today by the American Lung Association, using government data. The upshot: we’ve got bad air days here and there, but most of breathe clean air -- at least compared with other Americans.
Eugene-Springfield, Oregon, is the fifth worst in the United States for short-term pollution with small particles of soot that lodge deep in the lungs. These “particulates” are the most perilous of the major types of air pollutants, shortening the lives of perhaps tens of thousands of northwesterners each year. The metropolitan area surrounding Puget Sound from Everett south to Olympia ranks twenty-second worst in the nation and Medford, Oregon, is twenty-fifth worst. In Medford, winter wood stove use is the biggest problem. (The rankings are here.)
Officials in Oregon are probably right that the statistics are imprecise—a rare, severe wildfire filled the air during the period when testing took place, for example, made Eugene look worse than it deserves. Cities such as Spokane and Coeur d'Alene that periodically get clouded with smoke from field-burning by grass seed farmers probably look better than they should.
More encouraging news is that, ranked by their year-round average particulate pollution levels, all the Northwest cities plummet down the list. None of them rank among the worst 25. And many Northwest cities are among the cleanest 25 in the nation, including Washington’s Tri-Cities and Bellingham; Idaho Falls, Idaho; and Salem and Corvallis, Oregon. Juneau, Alaska, also has exceptionally clean air, largely because it’s atmosphere is washed by constant rainfall. (In fact, all northwesterners who live in the rain forest coastal belt benefit from the continual air cleaning services provided by prevailing weather patterns.)
Cascadia comes out well on another air pollutant covered in the report: ozone. Not a single Northwest city or county registered in the worst 25, and many (including Bellingham, Mount Vernon, and Spokane, Washington; and Eugene, Medford, and Salem, Oregon) ranked among the best 25 for ozone in urban air.
(A fuller description of air pollution in the Northwest is here.)
The Condo Gap
In the bid to create walkable, exciting, live-work-play downtowns, Vancouver’s enormous lead over Seattle and Portland just keeps growing. New developments in the heart of Vancouver – which already has four times as many residents as the geographically larger downtown of Seattle – continue to sprout at a phenomenal rate.
The city core has added between 1,500 and 2,500 new housing units each year for the last decade, with 3,000 expected this year and possibly 4,000 next.
In February, some 150 buyers camped out overnight to get first crack at the condos in a new building. The developer sold almost 500 units the next day alone. Oh, and the towers that will hold those units won’t be completed until 2006.
Last week, Larry Beasley, the city’s planning director, gave a speech sketching what to expect next. (Thanks to Gordon Price for the link. Gordon has added photos to the speech in his Price Tags newsletter. Request it from him at email@example.com)
And it’s pretty remarkable: expansion of the dense, low-car development pattern to another batch of neighborhoods including Gastown, Chinatown, and the currently drug-infested Downtown Eastside. But Beasley's tone is lamenting. The downtown is filling up, and the heyday of development on the downtown peninsula is probably passing for sheer lack of space. He consoles his audience that the game isn’t entirely over: “We still have capacity in the central core for another 50,000 people to come live downtown.” Freeze frame.
Move 137 miles south. Last year, Seattle’s Mayor Greg Nickels announced what seemed to many Seattle dwellers an astonishingly bold plan for downtown: residential, Vancouver-style development surrounding the central business district to accommodate – drum roll please -- 30,000 more people.
Move another 170 miles south. Portland is proud of the residential development in the Pearl District, an old industrial zone adjoining downtown. It’s got great architecture and wonderful galleries. Plus a burgeoning population of, drum roll please, 2,000 residents (as of 2002).
Let's review: In Vancouver, 50,000 is a little; in Seattle, 30,000 is a lot; in Portland, 2,000 is a lot. Three neighboring cities with utterly divergent cultures around urban living.
But what's even more remarkable, and hopeful, is the fact that the cultures diverged only recently. Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver had downtown development paths were almost indistinguishable two decades ago.
That's good news for the Emerald and Rose cities: the modest urban-center resurgences they've engineered of late can be converted into full-scale, Vancouveresque renaissances.
Their cultures--and their traffic patterns, emissions rates, noise levels, waist lines, and air quality--will change with their skylines.
April 28, 2004
Go Tell Anti-Roadie
It appears that a growing number of Seattle residents are questioning whether the Alaskan Way Viaduct--the elevated highway that hugs the Seattle waterfront through downtown--ought to be torn down and replaced with...well...nothing at all. There has been a lot written about this in the past few years -- especially recently.
This is not nearly as radical an idea as it might seem. Portland removed a waterfront freeway in the 1970s. San Francisco tore down its Embarcadero Freeway after it was damaged by the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, and city residents liked the results so much that they just tore down another stretch of elevated highway through downtown. Vancouver, BC, never built an urban freeway; after a vigorous citizens movement that grew alarmed by what I-5 did to Seattle neighborhoods, the city killed an extensive freeway plan in the 1960s. That leaves Seattle as the only major city north of Los Angeles that still reveres the urban highway.
Of course, every city is different, and has unique transportation needs. Although much of the traffic once carried by the Embarcadero simply vanished once it was torn down, that highway didn't serve the same function in its city's transportation scheme as does the Viaduct.
But at a very minimum, transportation planners should be looking very closely at replacing the viaduct with an at-grade boulevard. This could very well be the least-cost solution to replacing the Viaduct. Replacing the Viaduct with a tunnel -- the alternative preferred by most city officials -- would cost at least $4.5 billion. With an average of 55,000 round trips on the Viaduct per day, that's about $80,000 of tunnel for each vehicle: a huge amount, even if the city could count on a full-throttle economy and a free-spending electorate (which it can't).
The most startling and hopeful thinking on the world’s energy future consistently comes from Amory Lovins, a physicist based at the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado. His latest paper describes the potential to utterly transform the world’s energy economy, starting with vehicle technology. In fact, it details an SUV design that gets the equivalent of 100 miles to the gallon. In Amory’s view, a safer, cleaner, more prosperous, more efficient, climate-friendly hydrogen economy is not decades but years away, and each of the steps that can take us to it are profitable in the short term. A paper he wrote last year to debunk myths about hydrogen provides a more introductory exposition of similar themes.
April 27, 2004
Happy birthday, solar power! I had no idea that the first solar cells were invented by scientists from Oregon's sunny Willamette Valley.
Even though solar panels are now 50 years old, the technology is still in its infancy. As Seattle-based power engineer and amateur historian Larry Clifton recently explained to me, power generation has taken myriad forms over the millenia, but there are still only 3 core power technologies: muscle power (both animals and people); fluids (including wind, water, and steam); and now, solar. The first two have their origins in antiquity: even the modern nuclear plant is simply a variant of combustion-powered steam turbines, which themselves derive from windmills and water mills used for at least three thousand years.
The history of power technology suggests that shifts between different technologies can be surprisingly rapid, given a sound technology and favorable economics. Small windmills proliferated throughout Europe in the late middle ages, once the technology proved profitable and reliable. The same could be true of solar: once the cost comes down just a bit more (it's already dropped from $1,700 per watt to $3) -- or, in the alternative, once other fuels become more costly -- we could reach a tipping point where solar power and other alternative energy sources, from wind to conservation, really start to take off. And given the Northwest's high rate of energy consumption, it's not a moment too soon.