June 30, 2004
Visualize "Fast" News
In Cascadia Scorecard 2004, we argued that our region is bombarded by news of the dramatic: wildfire and war, scandal and celebrity, stock market gains and losses. But this "fast" news ignores the slow-changing trends that determine our future.
Newsmap has created a continuously updated visual map of the fast news. Each headline's size reflects the number of media outlets running the story at the moment, according to Google news. It's an impressive technical feat--and a revealing indicator of what the media regard as important.
Ready to Pop
The state of Washington just released new population estimates for 2004. The verdict: the state's population grew by 1.1 percent over the previous year, adding 69,500 new residents. And state forecasters are predicting that, with the economy picking up steam in recent months, next year's population growth will be even faster.
There are two ways to look at this news. First, in historic terms, it's not that high a percentage growth rate. Since 1900, Washington state has averaged 2.4 percent annual growth, which was more than twice as fast as last year's rate. That long-term pace has been torrid enough to double the state's population every 29 years, on average.
But another way to look at it is this: a 1.1 percent increase, though slower than we've experienced in the recent past, is still runaway growth. At that pace, the population of Washington state will double, to 12.3 million, by the time today's preschoolers reach retirement age. Sustained over the long term, this pace of growth would massively increase the human population of our place--making it virtually unrecognizable within a generation or two.
The disjunction between our perceptions about the pace of change (fairly slow) and the reality (very rapid) underline a very human failing: we're just plain bad at understanding exponential growth. Because of this failing, we continually underestimate the power of slow, steady changes: a percent or two a year of anything adds up surprisingly quickly.
When asked what was the most powerful force in the universe, Albert Einstein is rumored to have responded "compound interest." I'm not sure that the quote is accurate, but the sentiment is certainly appropriate to this case.
Rail . . . uh . . . Road?
The board of the greater Vancouver transportation authority, TransLink, will vote for a third time today on whether to build a rail rapid transit line from Vancouver to the airport and on to Richmond (dubbed the RAV line), as the CBC reports. Six weeks ago, the board shocked the region by rejecting RAV, despite big piles of money offered by the federal and provincial governments and by the airport authority.
The province, eager to get an airport train installed before the 2010 Winter Olympics, then promised to cover any cost overruns. The board revoted, but still rejected the offer: the plan was still a boondoggle, a majority said.
In a fit of apparent pique, BC Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon announced plans to build a freeway from Vancouver to Langley. Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell was so incensed he called for the minister’s resignation.
Now, the board will vote a third time, and they’ll likely approve the rail line, once they’ve placed further conditions on the project. By the time they’re done, it’s possible that the airport line will have gone from a net drain to a net plus for Vancouver. But it’s hard to say until all the numbers come out.
UPDATE: Third time was the charm for RAV. It won approval yesterday.
Rail is expensive; similar amounts spent on cheaper things, such as express buses, urban parks, and better pedestrian infrastructure can often provide larger, quicker urban benefits. Politically, though, rail tends to command more support.
1. If you want to understand why many adherents of sound urban design and sustainable transportation have rallied against this rail proposal, read this column by Gordon Price from Business in Vancouver. (Full disclosure: Gordon, a former TransLink board member, is on NEW’s board.)
2. In announcing his freeway plans, Minister Falcon told the CBC, "what we need to do is . . . get traffic moving. That's actually better for the environment because you don't have cars sitting there idling away and just sending carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere."
Many people adhere to this kind of reasoning but it’s false. Australian urban transport researchers Peter Newman and Jeff Kenworthy thoroughly demonstrated in the 1980s that congested streets, while they reduce the fuel economy of individual vehicles, actually improve the fuel economy of whole cities. All else being equal, a smaller, more congested road network reduces a city’s emissions of carbon dioxide from vehicles, because it deters driving. (Unfortunately, the paper doesn’t appear to be online.)
June 29, 2004
Displace On Earth
But a new study from the Seattle-based Institute for Lifecycle Environmental Assessment argues that if the goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, then generating hydrogen for fuel-cell powered cars isn't a particularly smart investment, at least not in the near-term.
Yes, burning gasoline is responsible for a lot of climate-warming emissions. But coal, the main source of electricity in the United States, is far worse. On net, using solar and wind power to offset generation from coal-fired power plants would be two and a half times as effective in reducing climate-warming emissions as using clean energy to generate hydrogen for fuel cell cars.
Using hydrogen as a vehicle fuel carries some inefficiencies--you have to convert electricity into hydrogen, and then convert the hydrogen back into electricity. Energy is lost at each step. In fact, the authors conclude that battery-powered cars would be twice as efficient at reducing greenhouse gas emissions than would fuel cell vehicles, largely because storing energy in a battery is more efficient than storing it as hydrogen.
As always, the usual disclaimers apply. Yes, replacing gasoline powered cars with fuel cell vehicles has some obvious advantages, both for greenhouse gases and for urban air quality. And yes, there's no reason we have to choose one or the other--renewable energy does have enough potential that, in theory at least, it could replace all our existing electricity and our gasoline consumption.
But if the point is to get from where we are now to where we could be, we have to make the smartest buys first. That will buy us both the money and the time to make the tougher investments later. By that criterion, we should spend less of our energy (so to speak) on creating a vehicle fleet that runs on hydrogen, and more on getting rid of coal-fired power plants.
The most recent city to be inspired by Vancouver, BC's smart-growth success is none other than Fort Worth, as the Star-Telegram reported last week (registration required). The fast-growing Texas city is using Vancouver, particularly its waterfront development, as the model for a grand plan to transform its downtown, its river, and boost the city's quality of life "for the next century."
Early on, the idea--which includes rerouting part of the Trinity River and adding a lake and canals--was dubbed Fantasy Island. Now, with the latest proposal (presented by Vancouver architect Bing Thom), the Star-Telegram is waxing ecstatic:
"Vancouver may have its mountains and ocean. What nature has denied us, we're compensating for with bold thinking, modern engineering and plenty of gumption."
The proposal sounds intriguing, with emphasis on "human-scale" design features. It is worth noting, however, that one key to Vancouver's success was a conscious emphasis on design that was not just people-friendly--but car-unfriendly; the city, for example, never built an extensive system of freeways.
Policy tweaks such as these, which encourage alternative transportation, might help Fort Worth catch up to Vancouver's downtown development record. The Texas city has about the same population as Vancouver, but only 3,000 downtown residents, compared to Van's 80,000.
Oh . . . Canada?
This post is for American Cascadians. It explains the Canadian elections.
Canada has a parliamentary system of government: whichever party wins the most seats gets to run the government, choose the prime minister, form the cabinet, introduce the budget, and so on. The short synopsis of yesterday’s elections is: little changed. The same center-left party--the Liberals--retained power in Ottawa.
But a better-informed summary would be that Canada shifted to the right. The Liberals, plagued by a scandal concerning the abuse of funds, lost their majority-government status. Instead, they will form a minority government, as the Globe and Mail explains. And they'll only have their way on the issues with the help of their left-hand peers, the labor-aligned New Democrats. The New Democrats doubled their small caucus in parliament, partially recovering from huge setbacks they suffered in 2000. They may, or may not, play nice with the Liberals. And even if they do, the Liberals will have to find a few more votes, perhaps from the nationalist Quebec party.
The Conservatives (a party that has reformed and renamed itself several times in recent years) came on strong during the election campaigns and briefly appeared likely to prevail. But they flagged at the end and finished a distant second to the Liberals. Lacking ideological allies in parliament, they will have a hard time moving their own agenda, though they may be able to tie things in knots.
BC followed one national trend but bucked another. As elsewhere, BC’s New Democrats rebounded somewhat from their 2000 debacle. But unlike elsewhere, the Liberals improved their BC standing, while Conservatives slipped (compared with their predecessor small "c" conservative parties, the Canadian Alliance and the Reform Party) as the CBC reported. Much of this shift reflected urban BC’s rejection of Conservatives, says the Vancouver Sun (subscription required).
Perhaps the most important outcome: Victoria voters re-elected David Anderson, the nation’s Liberal environment minister. (Mr. Anderson is the highest Cascadian official in either the U.S. or Canadian national government.)
Both Liberals and New Democrats are relatively good news for Cascadia's environment and economy: both have supported Canada's continued participation in the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, for example. But all parties have their blindspots and baggage.
P.S. The federal Liberals are a different organization entirely from the provincial Liberal Party, which currently controls BC provincial government. Provincial Liberals are generally aligned with federal Conservatives.
June 25, 2004
Burning Down the...Forest?
BC is experiencing rampant wildfires right now. From the Vancouver Sun:
Nearly 50 new forest fires started on Wednesday, bringing the total to 260 wildfire burning around the province.Last year at this time there were 101 fires, in what turned out to be the worst year ever.We've known for a while that conditions in BC are ripe for wildfires. The connection between global climate change and the region's odd weather in recent years is, of course, uncertain and difficult to prove. But where there's smoke...
June 24, 2004
Compact fluorescent bulbs provide all the lighting that incandescent bulbs do, for about a quarter the electricity--which makes them very exciting to energy efficiency advocates. According to the US Energy Information Administration, switching all household bulbs that are on for more than 4 hours a day from incandescent to compact fluorescent would reduce residential lighting demand by more than a third.
That would definitely be a step in the right direction. But in the big picture, it is still only a tiny step.
The same study says that lighting accounts for less than a tenth of the electricity used in people's homes. (Collectively, refrigeration, cooling, cooking, laundry, and other major appliances use much more juice than do lights.) So 35% of less than a tenth is about 3% -- that is, a major shift to CFLs would reduce residential electricity demand by about 3 parts in 100.
But things get worse. In the Northwest, people's homes account for less than a third of total electricity consumption. (Stores, businesses, industry, and government use about 69 percent of the total.) So a 3-percent decrease in residential electricity consumption is equivalent to a 1-percent decline in total consumption--about as much as it goes up in the average year to keep pace with population growth. And electricity accounts for only a minority of all the energy we use, once you factor in petroleum and natural gas. That makes the gains from CFLs seem even smaller in comparison.
The lesson here isn't that switching to CFLs is useless. Quite to the contrary; it's a highly significant, cost-effective, and perhaps even necessary step. But if the Northwest is ever going to significantly reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, we'll have to take lots and lots of steps like that. Each one will require a serious effort and years, or even decades, of steady change.
If there's a lesson here, it's that there's no silver bullet, no magic technology that can, by itself, cure our fossil fuel dependence. It's going to take persistence -- and lots and lots of small steps.
June 23, 2004
The French Environment Ministry has announced a plan for feebates on new cars, according to the UK’s Guardian newspaper. Coming on top of Canada’s consideration of feebates, this marks an important breakthrough for the underutilized tool.
June 22, 2004
Standards and the Poor
The U.S. poverty line is a notoriously bad measure of economic hardship. First, it's stingy: in 2003 a family of four could earn as little as $18,401 and still not be considered impoverished. Obviously, many families who are well above the poverty line still find it impossible to make ends meet. Second, it's inflexible: the poverty line is the same in Spokane as it is in Manhattan, even though the cost of living differs considerably between the two places.
Part of the problem with the federal poverty line is that it is badly out of date. Many people think that the poverty line represents the cost of a minimal basket of goods and services that is recalculated each year as prices rise. That's not so. In reality, the poverty line was originally based on the cost of an "economy food plan" circa 1965 -- a food budget that the Agriculture department said was "designed for temporary or emergency use when funds are low." In 1955 the average family spent about a third of their after-tax income on food; for lack of solid data it was assumed that poor families did the same, so the poverty line was set at three times the cost of the emergency food plan.
Since that time, the poverty line has been adjusted upwards for inflation each year. But inflation is a tricky business: the cost of food and clothing has gone up slower than average, while the cost of housing and medical care has gone up much faster. For the very poor, the declines in food prices may have been more than offset by increases in housing expenses. The result, after nearly 40 years of such changes, is that the poverty line doesn't mean much anymore--it's just a number, and an increasingly deceptive one.
Even the architect of the poverty line thought that it was flawed: she believed it would yield a "conservative underestimate" of the number of people actually in poverty. But there’s even less reason today than there was 40 years ago to believe that the poverty line really represents the level at which financial hardship begins. Many government low-income assistance programs (such as food stamps and subsidized school lunches) recognize this fact, by setting eligibility cutoffs well above the federal poverty guidelines.
A few years ago, researchers from the Economic Policy Institute tried to figure out a better way of calculating the level of income needed to avoid financial hardship. They collected data on actual costs of necessities--food, clothing, housing, transportation, child care, taxes and the like--for a number of cities and rural areas across the country. And what they found, not surprisingly, was that families well above the poverty line could still face significant financial hardship.
For Seattle, a family with two adults and two children needed to earn about $39,775 to make ends meet in 1999. That was well over twice the official poverty line. Here's the hardship level for all Northwest areas they looked at:
|Boise City, ID||$34,645|
|Portland-Vancouver (Ore. portion)||$37,306|
|Portland-Vancouver (Wash. portion)||$37,646|
One of the side benefits of EPI's research is that it sheds more light on the cost of living in different parts of the U.S. Judging by the "financial hardship" level, Seattle’s cost of living was the highest in the Northwest: for a family of four, it cost $7,600 more per year to live in Seattle than in Pocatello, Idaho. That accords with most people's intuitions--and suggests that the official poverty rate in Washington (11% in 2002) represents a greater amount of hardship than the slightly higher rate in Idaho (11.3%).
As with all statistics, the real trick to understanding data on federal poverty rates is to learn from them what you can, but not to be beguiled by them. They mean less than you might think.