March 31, 2005
Driving: Missed Daysies
According to the Census Bureau, the typical American worker spends about 100 hours--just over 4 full days--commuting to work each year. And that's just the morning commute; it doesn't even count the trip back home.
Now, 100 hours may not seem like that much spread out over a full year. But consider this: most workplaces offer just 80 hours of paid vacation per year.
Washington's commutes (pdf link) are tenth-longest in the nation, but are a mere 30 seconds longer than the national average: 24.8 minutes, vs. 24.3 minutes for the typical US resident. Oregon and Idaho commuters have it a little easier: they average 21 minutes (ranked 36th of 50 states) and 19.5 minutes (41st of 50), respectively.
While these differences may seem small, a few minutes per day is nothing to sneeze at. Every extra minute you spend on a one-way commute translates into more than 8 extra hours spent in transit each year.
But even though small differences really do matter, what's most surprising to me is how uniform commuting patterns seem to be. The range of average commuting times is really fairly narrow: most states -- and most drivers -- cluster around the national average. And residents of New York state, who take the longest to get to work, spend just 6 minutes a day more than the national average. Of course, perhaps it should come as little surprise that commute times are so uniform -- if commutes get too long, many people try to reorganize their lives to make them shorter, by changing the time of their commute, or the location of their job or residence.
It's also helpful to see the national data, since it helps to put local traffic woes in context. For example, for all of the talk of excessive traffic delays around Puget Sound (where I live), King county ranks just 87th among US counties (pdf link), nowhere near the top--and certainly not extreme for an urban county. Likewise, urban Seattle commutes are just a minute or two longer the national average for all commuters, and Portland commutes are a minute or two shorter. Plenty of commuters in, say, New York and Georgia and Maryland and Texas spend more time in their cars each morning.
I guess, like everyone, I wish my morning commute were shorter. But I guess I can live with being about average.
Bloom and Bust
I intend to celebrate this piece of news with a pint of strawberries and a bunch of arugula: the number of farmers markets in the United States doubled from 1994 to 2004.
Of the Northwest states, Washington may have the greatest total number of markets (more than 90, according to this Seattle Times article (the USDA lists 87) with a record number, at least two dozen, expected to open in Seattle and King County this spring. Many have already opened.
The article cites signs that the King County area is in the early stage of a farmers-market boom, despite some resistance from shopkeepers in parts of Seattle where stores still sell produce outside their storefront groceries.
Oregon’s farmers markets are also booming, with a number of new locations this year and lots of creative additions to markets, from preserving and pickling workshops to health education classes. The Portland Farmers Market opens a full month earlier (starting this Saturday), expecting that if they open the shoppers will come. The state has more farmers markets per capita than Washington or Idaho (62 total, with 13 in Portland alone). Idaho has 26 farmers markets, according to the USDA; and BC has around 90.
Why do farmers markets matter? For consumers, it’s a no-brainer. We get greater access to produce that’s fresh, local, often organic, and often reasonably priced for the quality. Many local markets have become gathering places where you can hear music, try out unusual fruits and vegetables (kohlrabi, anyone?), pick out a nosegay of local flowers, and have a chat. And the money we spend directly benefits the community (fewer greenhouse gas emissions per carrot, no pesticides in runoff and soil, money kept in the local economy, and so on).
And for growers, it’s, well, a market: an opportunity to sell their wares directly, to cut out the middleman, and to develop relationships with customers.
It’s worth remembering, though, that markets are only one sliver of the story. A big threat to farming--especially farms on the urban fringe--is sprawl, which is still the Northwest’s predominant land use pattern. A case in point: Snohomish County, north of Seattle, just unveiled a new plan to help its small farmers, including an advisory group, a media relations and marketing program; even a proposal to create a year-round public market similar to Pike Place.
The plan did not include, however, steps to help ease development pressures for farmland in the county, which has suffered a 26-percent loss of farmland in the past 20 years.
What can consumers do? Continue to support local agriculture by patronizing farmers markets and other methods of buying local produce (ie, community-supported agriculture). And pay close attention to the pubilc policy issues—particularly sprawl and climate change (see this post on drought)--that will affect the future of your community's farms.
P.S. Tim Steury, a guest contributor to this weblog and a small farmer himself, wrote a lovely piece for last month's issue of Washington State Magazine on whether we should worry about the future of the family farm and rural communities.
There's no new information here, but this article is worth reading for the reminder: Puget Sound's marine mammals, including orcas, are awash in toxics. Of particular concern are fire-proofing chemicals known as PBDEs. Levels of the compounds have grown exponentially since the 1980s, and recent science suggests that they can harm mammals' brain development much as do their chemical cousins, PCBs.
Earlier this week I grumped that this Seattle Times editorial misled readers about the finances behind a four-cent per gallon statewide gas tax. Among other problems, the editorial overstates how much a four-cent per gallon gas tax could accomplish. Over 30 years, it would finance less than $2 billion in infrastructure projects, which would only begin to pay for the highway projects--such as rebuilding the Alaskan Way Viaduct (expected to cost $4 billion without cost overruns) and the SR-520 floating bridge ($3 billion or so)--that the editorialists supported.
Now, it looks like the Washington Senate is considering a 15 cent per gallon gas tax hike, as part of a larger package that would raise about $8 billion for transportation projects -- with nearly half of that money slated for the Viaduct and the floating bridge.
That's getting a little closer to reality.
Still, this proposal would pay for only about half the costs of those two megaprojects. The state might be able to scrounge up a little more money from tolls, federal grants, and the like. But it would still leave a tab of at least $3 billion or so for taxpayers in the Seattle area.
And it still wouldn't pay for other projects, like resurfacing I-5, which is also near the end of its design life, or many of the other major projects that the state is itching to take on in the Puget Sound region.
I'm wondering if this isn't just the opening gambit in a strategy to push through a much smaller tax hike. State legislators must be aware of how easy it would be easy to whip up an anti-tax furor over this. A tax of 15 cents per gallon adds up to about $65 per person each year. You could argue that, in a big economy, that's a drop in the bucket. But over a decade, it's a tax hike of $2,600 for a family of four -- nearly half of which will be spent to replace a few miles of highway in central Puget Sound. Just try selling that in Tacoma or Everett, let alone the Tri-cities or Spokane.
And consider: a couple of years ago, state voters trounced a
proposal to raise gas taxes by 9 cents per gallon--and those tax
revenues would have been distributed fairly broadly around the state. Given that lesson, if I were a legislator I'd be really cautious
about endorsing a 15 cent tax--especially if my constituents rarely drove on the Viaduct or 520 floating bridge.
The irony in all this is that a tax hike of 15 cents per gallon is much, much too low. It won't pay to replace the existing road infrastrucutre. It won't affect drivers' behavior much, or do much to reduce the region's reliance on imported fuels. It will barely affect the fuel efficiency of the vehicle fleet. It won't pay for national defense costs for the petroleum supply. It won't pay for pollution, for CO2 emissions, for you name it.
But it's still, if I had to bet, more than the amount that Washington voters are willing to swallow.
It should be, argues David Prerau in a New York Times op-ed today. Originally conceived by Ben Franklin as a form of energy conservation (saving candles actually), it still has untapped potential to reduce electricity consumption, as well as improve our lives in other ways. According to Prerau, extending daylight savings time by a week or two in the spring and autumn:
can save us energy while also preventing traffic accidents, cutting crime, helping trick-or-treaters safely across the street, and providing millions of gardeners, softball players and backyard barbecuers an additional hour in the sun.
It's worth a read.
UPDATE (4/7/05): The full US House of Representatives will likely soon vote on an energy bill that will contain a bi-partisan ammendment extending Daylight Savings Time by two months.
Who's Getting PAYD?
Cascadia's guru on pay-as-you-drive (PAYD) auto insurance and related transportation pricing innovations is Todd Litman of the Victoria Tranport Policy Institute. He provides a useful summary of who's doing PAYD in his newsletter, which I'll simply insert below the fold. The growth of PAYD programs is very encouraging, because PAYD is among the most powerful incentives for sound transportation and land-use patterns. There are rumors that a Cascadia locale could be the next place to host a PAYD insurance offering--more on that, if it comes to fruition.
Pay-As-You-Drive (PAYD) refers to converting pricing vehicle insurance and registration into distance-based fees, so motorists pay based on their annual mileage. We consider this one of the most best pricing reforms for improving transportation system efficiency and equity. We have been working to support this concept for several years. Here is news regarding PAYD implementation.
Aryeh offers PAYD insurance in Israel, billed monthly using mileage data collected by small wireless transmitters in vehicles and receivers at fuel pumps, offered by PAZ (www.pazomat.co.il), the country’s largest petroleum company. About 200,000 vehicles (about 15% of all vehicles, and a larger portion of company and government agency cars) already have the device installed for automatic payment.
Polis Direct Kilometre Policy. Polis Direct, a major Dutch insurance company, began offering their 'Kilometre Policy' in November 2004. Per-kilometer premiums are calculated by dividing current premiums by the current policy’s maximum annual kilometers, so a motorist who currently pays €500 for up to 20,000 kilometers would pay €0.025. At the end of the policy term motorists can receive a rebate of up to 50% of their premium for lower mileage, or pay up to 50% higher premiums if they drive more than the current maximum. Mileage data is collected during annual vehicle inspections.
Norwich-Union PAYD Pilot Project. In 2003, Norwich-Union, the largest insurance group in the UK, began a two-year pilot project of Pay-As-You-Drive insurance pricing involving about 5,000 vehicles. Each participating vehicle is fitted with a small data recorder which measures vehicle usage and automatically reports mileage using mobile telephone technology.
General Motors and On-Star Offers PAYD Rates. Since mid-2004 the General Motors Acceptance Corporation (GMAC) Insurance has offered mileage-based discounts to OnStar subscribers located in certain states. The system automatically reports vehicle odometer reading at the beginning and end of the policy term to verify vehicle mileage. Motorist who drive less than specified annual mileage receive insurance premium discounts of up to 40%.
NEDBANK PAY-PER-K Coverage. Nedbank, a major South African insurer, offers 'Pay-Per-K' vehicle insurance. Monthly premiums are based on the distance traveled in the preceding month, and are debited monthly in arrears. Mileage is automatically recorded each time the vehicle is refueled using a Nedbank card.
Progressive and Aviva Programs. The Progressive TripSense and AVIVA Autograph policies offer low-mileage discounts up to 25%, using a small data collection device that motorists plug into their engine diagnostic port. These policies are currently only available in a few areas of the U.S. and Canada.
Contact Todd Litman to have your name added to a special email news list about PAYD issues.
March 30, 2005
Forest Fight II
The standoff against Weyerhaeuser and provincial forest management policies reached its ninth day today. Haida Gwaii residents have blockaded roads and seized cut wood in protest against destructive and short-term logging practices on the island.
UPDATE (3/31/05): Keep up with the latest developments.
We're Not Kidding
Interesting. According to this report (pdf download) from the Urban Land Institute, the number of familes with kids in the US is on the decline. Childless households, however, are growing at a steady clip.
Take a look:
In the same vein, less than half of all married couples in the US actually have kids under 18. And single-person households outnumber married couples who have kids under 18 living with them.
What these demographic shifts mean, of course, is that there's a growing number of households who don't look like Ozzie and Harriet -- and who might not be all that excited to live in the sprawling suburbs that attracted so many families during the baby boom years. Which is one more reason that I'm not so concerned about the declining number of kids in urban downtowns: the rising number of singles and childless couples will still mean strong demand for downtown living.
Conversations Among Farmers
Finally, we're getting some moisture in the Inland NW, at least enough to slightly loosen the knot gripping the stomach of anyone who makes a living by putting seeds in the ground. By the end of last month, the driest February on record, area farmers were genuinely panicked. Every conversation with our neighbor, who's been farming the surrounding land for four decades, was about the weather.
No different from usual farmer conversation, I guess. Just more intense. "Never seen anything like it," he'd say over and over.
So even though they spend more time listening to market reports and talk show windbags than climate scientists as they ride around in their tractors and pickups, these guys might be increasingly sensitive to news such as findings from this new study out of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).
With colleagues at PNNL and Washington State University, natural resource economist Michael J. Scott conducted a decade-long study of the effect of global warming on the Yakima Valley. The Yakima Valley comprises 370,000 irrigated acres of apples, grapes, pears, and a host of other fruits and vegetables.
The model the scientists used assumed no overall change in precipitation, just water availability maintained by snowpack and reservoirs. They figured the effects by applying 80 years of drought data to their projections.
According to Scott, "The expected losses to agriculture alonge in the Yakima Valley over the next several decades will be between $92 million at 2 degrees centigrade warming and $163 million a year at 4 degrees." This would equal nearly a quarter of the total current value of the crop.
Scott proposes his modeling not as prophecy, but as a way to plan. Maybe Yakima growers should consider taking out more water dependent crops such as tree fruit and put in more grapes.
That sounds great, to a point. But we can drink only so much wine, even from the Yakima Valley. And over here, further east on the Palouse, grapes aren't an option. The winters are just a bit too harsh. But wait, it's warming, isn't it?
Maybe they haven't tuned into Scott's specific predictions yet, but farmers are paying attention. Even the Capital Press, not exactly a paragon of progressive agriculture or politics, ran a headline above the fold on a recent front page acknowledging the "reality" of global climate change.
We don't irrigate here on the Palouse. Still, maybe we'll see more farmers going to no-till to conserve moisture and buffer strange months like this February. Or maybe we'll see more hay or permanent pasture. Unfortunately, farmers here are discouraged economically from considering anything other than the traditional wheat, peas and lentils. Land values around here are artificially inflated because of subsidies, putting costs too high to grow anything other than subsidized wheat.
But you never know what another record dry month could do for people's thinking.
A new report issued today at a conference in Seattle details the struggle to improve ecological conditions in the inland marine waters of British Columbia and Washington--the Salish Sea, as it is sometimes called--an effort that is complicated by trans-border and jurisdictional issues. At the conference, Washington's governor, Christine Gregoire, proposed spending $31.5 million over two years to address the most pernicious threats to Puget Sound's ecology.