June 30, 2005
Waiting to Inhale
People who move to the suburbs may think they’re fleeing the polluted air of the city. Of course, there’s a tradeoff: by living in low-density suburbs, they spend more time in their cars. And as it turns out, the air inside your car may be just about the dirtiest you’ll breathe all day.
Last year, researchers in Sydney, Australia released a study (pdf) that measured the levels of benzene (a carcinogen) and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs), as well as asthma-inducing nitrogen oxides, among people who commute by car, bus, train, bike and foot.
The verdict? Car commuters breathed the worst air, getting the highest doses of benzene and other VOCs. Even bus commuters were exposed to lower levels of VOCs than car commuters (though bus riders breathed higher levels of nitrogen dioxide). Train commuters had the least exposure overall, with cyclists and walkers coming in second-best.
One reason for the difference is that motorists are breathing exhaust, both from their own vehicles and from nearby traffic. As the authors of the Sydney study note, driving on congested freeways puts motorists in a "tunnel of pollutants." By contrast, other travel modes reduce ambient exposures: trains tend to run on isolated tracks, buses often take express lanes, walkers and bikers may travel on quieter streets.
The US census says that 87.9% of Americans commute by car, truck, or van, and the National Household Transportation Survey shows that people who live in sprawling suburbs spend about 68 minutes per day in their cars--about 50 percent more than people who live in more compact urban neighborhoods.
So, to some extent, if you want more fresh air it may be smarter to move closer to downtown, rather than farther away.
State Says Population is Da Bomb
Washington's population growth appears to be picking up a bit of steam: the state added 88,600 new residents over the past year, according to the state Office of Financial Management (OFM). That was 20,000 more residents than the state added during the previous year. And compared with 2 years before, the pace of population growth increased even more, rising from .9 percent per year in 2002-2003, to 1.4 percent in 2004-2005. All in all, it's a fairly signficant uptick.
Now, demographers look at two distinct trends when analyzing population growth: natural increase (births minus deaths), and net migration (in-migrants minus out-migrants). Most of uptick in growth last year stemmed from increased in-migration; on net, Washington attracted more newcomers over the past year than it had since 1997. And since new residents typically are attracted by jobs and rosy economic prospects, the OFM press release seems almost giddy about its news:
Reflecting a stronger economy, Washington State's population has grown by an estimated 88,600 people, or a healthy 1.4 percent, in the past year, Theresa Lowe, the state's chief demographer, said Tuesday.
Population growth hasn't been this robust since the early 1990s, Lowe said. It compares to an increase in 2004 of 68,500, or 1.1 percent.
But hold on a second there, bubs. The OFM describes an increase in population growth as "healthy" and "robust." In other words, state officials are shilling for more new residents, and trying to get the press to cover rapid population growth as an unmitigated boon, rather than a mixed blessing.
That, to me, is simply a conceptual error. An uptick in population growth may be a sign of a good thing (an improved economy), but isn't necessarily a good thing in itself.
At its current pace, the state is growing fast enough to fill a city the size of Tacoma or Spokane in a little over two years. No matter how you slice it, that's rapid change. And at last year's growth rate -- 1.4 percent per year -- the state will double in population before today's newborns turn 50. That's the problem with exponential growth; year-to-year change seems minimal, but over time it really adds up. Just take a look at the graph -- in just over a century, the state's population has multiplied twelve-fold. And that growth -- and the attendant sprawl -- has taken a toll on the lowland ecosystems of Puget Sound, on air quality, and so on.
Now, setting aside for a moment the environmental concerns, it's not completely clear that population growth does any good for the economy. It certainly does benefit some sectors -- the home building industry loves it. But growth has costs, too, including higher taxes to pay for new roads and schools (new development rarely pays its own way). More generally, as this Brookings Institution report details, fast population growth doesn't necessarily bring an increase in overall economic wellbeing; some places with slower-than-average growth have faster-than-average increases in per capita income, and vice versa.
In short, I simply don't think it's appropriate for the state OFM to take on a role as advocates for population growth--and I have to wonder what political forces are in play that can lead them to act more like cheerleaders than sober-minded analysts.
Update: I fixed some typos and dangling sentences. Also, see here for our analysis of the OFM's population growth figures.
Further update: Ok, I just took a closer look at the OFM's actual figures for the components of population growth (see this pdf), and the only thing I can make of it is that the OFM press release is pure politics.
According to the chief demographer, "Population growth hasn't been this robust since the early 1990s." But look: the percent growth rate was the same in 2001 and 1999, and higher in 1998. Similarly, the absolute (not percent) population growth numbers were higher in 1997 and 1996, as were the net migration figures. All were substantially higher in the early 1990s. So what they meant by "robust" or "early 1990s" is a mystery to me.
Which suggests to me that the OFM press release was mostly an opportunity for some needless, unhelpful, and frankly disingenuous puffery. Grrr.
Monorail: A Railroad or a High Road?
Seattle's monorail project has smashed into the biggest bump in its bumpy history. This is hardly news anymore: the $2 billion 14-mile line will end up costing $11 billion, with $9 billion in interest payments, and the tax to fund it will extend until 2053. City hall and Olympia are, in short, freaking out. Read about it here, here, and here.
There's good reason to freak out. The monorail financing as it is currently proposed is absurd. HOWEVER, the monorail is not dead yet. And while the financing debacle is more serious than a flesh wound, it should not spell the end of the project. Following, I spell out a few ways to salvage it.
(Full disclosure: I am an unreconstructed believer in the monorail. At its essence it is superior to any other form of transportation in the region. You can read my in principle defense of the monorail at the end of this post.)
- Truncate the line. It's clearly not cost-effective the build the entire 14-mile green line without additional funding. Lopping off the arm north of downtown would preserve valuable capacity to West Seattle (even more valuable when the $4 billion viaduct tunnel inevitably implodes). It might even be possible to cut out only the downtown section, saving money on the most expensive property acquisitions. Riders could still get from the neighborhoods to Seattle Center or SoDo, close enough to walk to downtown or switch to other forms of transit.
- Raise taxes, or diversify. Why not raise the value-based tax on cars, perhaps extending to brand new cars--an egregious oversight in the current financing? This would shorten the terms of the debt, dramatically reducing the overall cost. Alternatively, the monorail should consider taxing 1) commercial parking (the city has the authority to do this and it has the advantage of both encouraging transit and discouraging driving); 2) cruise ships (surely, Seattleites would love this one. After all, those clueless cruisers will undoubtedly be using the monorail).
- Get government funding. The feds, the state, the county, and the city manage to come up with huge sums of money for all sorts of less worthy projects--the asinine viaduct tunnel, I-405 expansion, the asinine 520 expansion, the South Lake Union streetcar, and light rail, not to mention buses. There's no reason, in principle, that the monorail shouldn't be subsidized by government funds.
Of course, any of these three solutions would legally (and ethically) require going back to the voters yet again. I think that would make it 5 times. There is, however, really no other solution. The monorail's current plans are bad enough that city leaders should kill the plan. But before they kill something that Seattle's voters really want, they should make an honest effort at trying to fix the problem first. Remember, the monorail could be a very good thing for Seattle. We just have to figure out how to make it work.
Post-script: Why the monorail is a good thing
- It is funded by a value-based progressive tax on car ownership. It therefore kills two birds with one stone: it both discourages car-ownership and encourages transit ridership. (Also, at present its funding is more congruent with its service area than any other transportation project in the Puget Sound region.)
- Obviously, an elevated train is immune to grade-level congestion and construction. All else being equal, this makes it quicker, more efficient, and more reliable. It is, therefore a more appealing choice to riders.
- The monorail offers something additional that no other form of transit can: unique aesthetic quality. Not only is a monorail an iconic symbol, but the potential views--especially in a city like Seattle--are bound to be wonderful. It's quiet, sleek, and has a kitschy futuristic quality. (I know that number-crunching planner-types don't put much stock in this, but aesthetic value really does--and should--matter in our cities.) It is, therefore a more appealing choice to riders.
- Complaints about the shadow-effect of the stations and rails are red herrings. They are belied by the experiences of every city with an elevated train (at least that I've ever visited). Areas near el-train stops are usually vibrant, thriving, and dense centers. In fact, developers have already begun inquiring about building up the areas near monorail stations.
- For the last time, it is not argument against the monorail that it won't reduce city congestion. Nothing will--not road-capacity expansion, not high-speed buses, not light rail, not carpooling, and not even the monorail. Street congestion is here to stay. But it's an open question whether people will have other options that will allow them to move quickly despite the congestion. A monorail can accomplish this with an efficiency and aplomb that no other form of transit can.
- Also, for the last time, it is not an argument against the monorail that it is not the cheapest way to move people. No one except the pocket protector crowd cares. Seattle voters have consistently volunteered to tax themselves for the monorail (for all of the reasons that I mention here). Just try floating a popular initiative for expanded bus service, the apparent fave of transportation engineers. The point is: the monorail does in fact move people--quickly--it discourages car-ownership, and Seattleites want it here.
- It's the cleanest and greenest form of transit. Monorails run on electricty, which in Seattle is climate neutral, emitting no net greenhouse gases, and does not contribute to air pollution. You can't say that about non-electric buses, not even biodiesel buses, or trains.
- Still a doubter? Visit Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which is home to one of the few large-scale big-city monorail lines in the world. (Okay, I know it's not exactly next door.) I've ridden the monorail there and, yes, it lives up to all the claims that I've made in this post. KL's monorail is truly fantastic. Seattle's could be too.
June 29, 2005
Oregon's Indicator Grouse
To the casual observer, the sage brush country of the American West looks like the Big Empty--undisturbed land stretching to the horizon. So vast is this landscape that early travelers dubbed it "the sagebrush sea." The reality, however, is that the rich native biological integrity of this Inland Northwest ecosystems has been substantially diminished. And no single creature is better proof of this than the sage-grouse.
The sage-grouse is a rather astonishing bird, best known for its flamboyant courtship displays. It is also a popular gamebird, which is part of the reason why wildlife officials monitor their numbers so assiduously.
They are an excellent indicator of the health of sagelands because nearly every form of human activity in sage country affects the sage-grouse. Fencing, towers, and transmission lines give their predators the advantage. Resource extraction, such as mining and drilling, stress the grouse and render land unsuitable for mating and breeding. Farmlands and sage brush eradication destroy their habitat conspicuously, while livestock grazing and off-road vehicles accomplish the same end more subtly. Invasive species, especially cheat grass, render their landscapes more vulnerable to fire and simplifies the native plantlife, making food sources more scarce.
The biggest worry, however, is not habitat destruction or fragmentation, but West Nile Virus, whose spread is abetted by gradual warming trends. The best study to date suggests that the birds are highly susceptible to the virus, and could suffer 100 percent mortality rates in the event of an infection.
In Oregon, the sage-grouse report card is mixed.
- The good news: sage-grouse populations appear stable over the last 20 or 30 years. While their numbers follow a natural cycle of ebb and flow, biologists believe that their current numbers reflect population stability.
- The bad news: current populations are substantially below their historic abundance. Sage-grouse numbers today are probably less than 1/4 of their historic numbers, and less than 1/2 of what they were at mid-century.
Unfortunately, in Washington, the future of the sage-grouse is less rosy. Though Lewis and Clark reported a "great abundance" of sage-grouse in east-central Washington, especially near present-day Tri-Cities, the state is now home to only about 1,000 birds, in two fragmented populations. In fact, despite their former abundance, the long-term prospects for sage-grouse in Washington look grim.
June 28, 2005
The Fish Next Door
No creature, beside humans, penetrates the Pacific Northwest as thoroughly as salmon. In a single short lifetime a salmon may inhabit pelagic and nearshore marine waters, freshwater streams, mountains, forests, deserts, cities, and farms. Their presence is perhaps the region's defining characteristic. They are, therefore, the single best indicator of the Northwest's ecological integrity. The health of salmon is a close proxy for how extensively we have eroded our natural heritage.
They are woven in the cultural fabric of the Northwest and even into the bodies of those who have lived here: from the salmon-centric diet of early Native Americans, to gung-ho fisheries that sprung up in the 19th and 20th centuries, to the $25/pound Copper River salmon that city-dwellers eat in late spring. Their spawning ritual is certainly one of most astonishing events in the natural world. It is mysterious too--massive fish battle relentlessly, in some cases hundreds of miles upstream, for a single chance at procreation in the face of certain death.
From their death, however, springs life in many forms. Bald eagles and grizzlies feast on their carcasses and the nitrogen of their decomposing bodies enriches farmlands. Even the multitudes of younger salmon who do not reach their spawning grounds are food for birds, whales, sea lions, and otters, among many other of the Northwest's inhabitants. Salmon are, in many ways, the heart of the region's ecosystem. Connected to nearly everything, their lives support countless others forms of life.
But salmon, as everyone knows, are disappearing from the Northwest. Many runs and distinct population have already disappeared forever. Others are imperilled, finding a home on the US Endangered Species List or on Canada's "red list."
Percent of salmon stocks that are at-risk and extinct.
There are countless ways of quantifying the salmon--by species, by runs, by seasons, or by "life histories." I've recently been crunching numbers for just one subset of the Northwest's salmon, albeit a very important one: spring and summer Chinook on the Columbia River. The Columbia, which is the biggest river on the west coast of the Americas, was once home to some of the world's most prolific salmon runs and no salmon is more impressive than the big Chinooks--the kings--that run in the spring and summer. Also, data on the returning Chinooks is exceptionally high quality because of excellent fish-monitoring at river's many dams.
Today on the Columbia, salmon return in only a fraction--perhaps 1/20th--of their historic abundance. And because most salmon on the Columbia today are hatchery-raised fish, the true picture of salmon is even less rosy. Wild Chinook may only now be 1% of their historic numbers.
In recent years, however, there has been cause for at least mild optimism and even pollyana claims that the salmon are fine after all. From 2000 to 2004, Chinooks returned to the Columbia in the greatest numbers since at least the 1930s--though even at the height of their recent peak, they were only about 1/6th of their historic abundance; and, of course, the wild fish numbers were much smaller than that. But then bad news followed. In the spring of 2005, the Chinooks didn't show up--at least, there were far fewer fish than researchers had been expecting. Newspaper headlines were grim, as biologists puzzled over the missing fish.
One big obstacle to understanding salmon is that their population sizes are frenetic. Returning Chinook at the Bonneville Dam--the lowest dam on the Columbia--vary by an average of 38 percent a year. And while salmon numbers appear to follow rough population cycles, there are plenty of aberrations. It's not that yearly salmon numbers don't matter, but that the long term trends are the ones that are really worth paying attention to. It is just as foolish to sound an alarm solely because of this year's low returns, as it was for dam proponents to use 2001's spike in numbers to claim that salmon populations are healthy.
All this makes salmon recovery very challenging. Not that it needs to be any more challenging than it already is--salmon are nothing if not controversial. Not only is it hard to count them (and hard to assign meaning to the counts) but restoration efforts are hampered by the fish's ubiquity. Their declines can be blamed on so may things--hydroelectric dams, irrigation, dredging, cattle ranching, clearcutting, suburban sprawl, industrial waste, global warming, natural ocean current cycles, sport fishing, commercial fishing, aquaculture, shoreline development, stormwater management, and much more--that everyone to blame can easily pass the buck to someone else.
How then, can we restore salmon the anywhere near their native abundance? It strikes me that in at least this one case, we already have a policy solution that works. It may not be very popular, especially among some property rights advocates, but the US Endangered Species Act listing for many stocks of salmon forces us to ask all right questions about our way of life: Is our urban development too expansive, and too heavy on the land? Are we using natural resources--forests, fisheries, hydropower, and farms--in a way that is sensitive to the long-term success of the natural systems that sustain them?
As go the salmon, so goes the ecology of the Northwest. If the region's salmon are healthy, the Northwest's ecosystems will be healthy too. The mechanisms of salmon restoration are the very same mechanisms that will make the Northwest a place of clean water, open spaces, tall forests, and wild rivers. We know the problem. All we must do now is set ourselves to the work. It may not be easy, but it will be easy to care, because the fate of salmon is our fate too.
A Wolf in Wolf's Clothing
An excellent article on wolf reintroduction in Orion magazine. The main focus is on the evolution of our psychology and values around wolves. Here's a sneak preview:
...the culture of the west continues to be transformed gradually by an influx of people holding different, perhaps more modern, values. The old-timers are fading away and, like it or not, the new west is taking hold. Surveys show that if you're about fifty years old or more, you probably hold a pretty negative attitude towards predators; but younger people think the whole idea of killing off all the predators is a joke.... And more people have come to understand that you can't cry wolf on both sides of the issue. That is, those with anti-wolf sentiments realize that there haven't been huge problems with wolves, and even wolf advocates realize that wolves can be a pain in the ass sometimes.
Wolf reintroduction is happening not just in the northern Rockies, but in other parts of the US, such as North Carolina, the Southwest, and, by natural population expansion, in the Upper Midwest. The big question is whether people will live peacably with wolves. And a big part of the answer to that question has to do with what you see when you see a wolf.
For the last several weeks, we've been collecting comments on a series of values and principles of sustainability, called the 'Fundamentals.' Our hope is to get your feedback about the best way to frame the issues that we address in our work. Thanks to all of you who have left such thoughtful comments!
In an early focus group we floated the idea of a value called thriving commons. ("We are all trustees for a common inheritance: our grandchildren’s birthright of schools, parks, forests, rivers, climate, and even our democracy.") But some folks thought we needed to be more explicit about the environment. So we proposed the language of thriving nature, instead.
"Commons" is a word that has captured the imagination of many. How does it strike you? What does it mean to you? When you hear about the "commons" does it evoke for you the bounty of nature?
Please let us know what you think! Check out our special blog devoted to the Fundamentals and leave your comments there. Thanks!
How do you travel?
Traveling from place to place takes a lot of our time – just under 80 minutes per person per day, according to recent figures. But who gets a worse deal? Is it city dwellers, who fight through downtown gridlock and congested city streets, or waste time waiting for the bus or train to finally arrive? Or suburbanites, who benefit from freer flowing traffic, but who may have to drive for miles and miles to get to work, schools, and stores?
As it turns out, it doesn’t particularly matter. According to data from the 2001 National Household Transportation Survey, no matter where you live – city center, inner ring suburb, or urban fringe – you spend about the same amount of time getting from place to place. Just take a look:
So does location matter at all? In fact, yes. Total time spent traveling doesn’t vary much with the density of your neighborhood, but time spent in cars, trucks, and SUVs decreases as density increases. People living in the densest neighborhoods spend roughly a third less time driving than people living in low density neighborhoods spend (43 minutes vs. 63 minutes per day). That means they can use those extra 20 travel minutes a day doing something else.
If you are able to work on public transit, say by reading documents or using a lap-top, you could reduce the amount of time you spend in the office. Some people also use commute time to nap or just decompress from the work day.
Multi-tasking can involve exercise too. In Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, only around 55% of people get the CDC recommended amount of 30 minutes of moderate activity 5 times a week or 20 minutes of vigorous activity 3 days a week. If you live in a neighborhood where you can walk to work or bike to the grocery store, you can get your exercise while running errands.
What could you do with all that extra time?
June 27, 2005
Forests Fired II
Increasingly, conservationists are pushing for timber thinning on federal land as a means of ecological restoration and fire-fuel reduction. In Oregon, roughly 5.6 million acres need thinning, more than any other state.
Unfortunately, most of the thinned timber is being wasted--simply piled and burned. Luckily, new technologies that convert biomass to usable energy, can perhaps begin to offset the Northwest's dependence on expensive fossil fuel imports. One of the big upsides of biomass is that it would keep money circulating locally, rather than pumping it to North Slope oil corporations.
At present, unfortunately, biomass energy in Oregon hasn't caught fire because producers are worried that there won't be a steady and predictable supply of thinned timber. Of course, that's exactly what has environmentalists worried too. Obviously, it's a shame to waste natural resources and money, but many conservationists are equally worried that biomass energy could unleash a demand for federal timber that could outlive the thinning projects and exert harvesting pressure on national forests far into the future.
Read all about it in today's Oregonian.
Oil Rising To the Top
This should come as little surprise, but oil prices just topped $60 per barrel.
While this is the highest nominal price ever, it's far from the highest inflation-adjusted price; in the early 1980s oil topped $94 in today's dollars. Still, the recent price runup has been pretty darn steep: the price of a barrel of oil has increased roughly fivefold since the winter of 1998.
As a reminder: Washington, Oregon, and Idaho combined use about 250 million barrels of oil every year (see this US Energy Information Agency site for details for your state), none of which is produced within the states' borders. Much of this oil comes from Alaska's North Slope; and this oil is a little cheaper than the light crude to which the spot price refers. Still, at current prices (link to Anchorage Daily News; registration may be required), our oil consumption habits will siphon off about $14 billion from the combined economies of the three states, which is about one out of every 30 dollars generated in the region. And, obviously, the more money that leaves the region to pay for oil, the less is left to circulate among local businesses and residents.