July 20, 2005
Population Gains & Losses
New official population data released today by Washington's Office of Financial Management. The estimates--and they're just estimates--are for every town, city, and county in Washington and 2005.
Here's a quick look at the top 10 fastest growing cities over the past year...
|City||New residents in 2005|
And the top 10 cities for population loss from 2004 to 2005...
|City||Loss of residents in 2005|
Driver's Ed, Hybrid Style
Much has been made of the discrepancy between the rated fuel economy of hybrid cars and the actual results that drivers get on the road. Sure, "actual mileage may vary," but that variance proved particularly wide for hybrids, and was especially aggravating since fuel efficiency was the main reason people bought the hybrids in the first place.
Now comes the Dean of Energy Geeks, Amory Lovins, to offer a solution. According to his half-page piece in the current issue of the Rocky Mountain Institute newsletter (p. 15 of large pdf), hybrid owners need to learn a new style of driving to take advantage of their cars' technology. Lovins calls it "pulse driving," and it has two main components:
- Brisk acceleration, then letting up once you reach cruising speed. "The engine is most efficient at high speed and torque," he writes.
- Gentle braking, anticipating the need to stop. This allows the car to recover as much energy as possible and feed it into the battery. If you try to stop more suddenly, the mechanical brakes kick in, and they dissipate that precious energy as mere heat.
Lovins claims that this strategy has enabled him to eek out 63 mpg with snow tires on his 64-mpg-rated Insight, and will bring in 53 to 55 mpg on the 55-mpg-rated Prius.
Not having a Prius, I can't test-drive this advice, but I'd be curious how it squares with the observations of all you hybrid drivers out there.
July 18, 2005
Sea Food, See Food Travel
Globalization in action: some locally-caught seafood is now being shipped to China for processing, and then back to the Northwest for sale. This saves on labor costs -- labor is a fifth to a tenth as costly in China as it is here -- but massively increases the amount of energy consumed.
For the most part, I prefer to buy food that's grown or caught locally. But sending locally-caught seafood on an 8,000 mile journey in search of cheap labor definitely strains the definition of "local".
But as long as international markets remain open, transportation remains cheap, and disparities in international labor costs remain wide, we're likely to see more and more of this sort of thing. Which means, unfortunately, that green-minded consumers may have to remain vigilant not just about where their food is grown, but also where it's processed.
No Silver Bullets
Here's yet another reminder that we can't rely on technology alone to save fuel. According to The New York Times, the next generation of gas-electric hybrid vehicles is being designed mostly to boost performance, rather than to boost efficiency. To wit:
The 2005 Honda Accord hybrid gets about the same miles per gallon as the basic four-cylinder model, according to a review by Consumer Reports, a car-buyer's guide, and it saves only about two miles a gallon compared with the V-6 model on which it is based. Thanks to the hybrid technology, though, it accelerates better.
Not to pooh-pooh a 2 mile per gallon boost, but does such a small mpg gain really warrant the federal tax subsidy that's currently doled out to hybrids in the US? Of course, the hybrid tax breaks are scheduled for phase-out in 2006. But they've been extended so many times now that I'm wondering if they'll become permanent.
This phenomenon -- using technological innovation to boost performance rather than efficiency -- is really just a continuation of a long-standing trend. Per person energy use in the Pacific Northwest has remained flat for decades, as each improvement in energy efficiency has been accompanied by an equal and opposite increase in our appetites. Still, it's good to get a reminder of exactly what the consumer dynamic is here; said one buyer of a hybrid Accord, "I wasn't prepared to give up anything to 'go green' - not performance, amenities, or space." And that attitude is shared, no doubt, by most of the car buying public. Which serves as a reminder that nobody should be sanguine that technological innovation, by itself, will have much of a dent on our fuel consumption.
This would make a great reality TV show: As chronicled in online magazine the Tyee, a couple in British Columbia decides that for one year they will only eat food that is grown or raised within a 100-mile radius of where they live--with a few exceptions.
Why? The short answer is "fossil fuels bad." The average American (and probably Canadian) meal, they point out, uses 17 times more petroleum products than an entirely local meal. And:
Let's translate that into the ecological footprint model devised by Dr. William Rees of UBC which measures how many planets'-worth of resources would be needed if everyone did the same. If you had an average North American lifestyle in every other way, from driving habits to the size of your house, by switching to a local diet you would save almost an entire planet's worth of resources (though you'd still be gobbling up seven earths).
And how hard could it be to eat within 100 miles? After all, they live in an area rich in fertile farmland and seas. They imagined they would eat seasonally, their table heavy with the best produce, fish, and free-range meat that British Columbia has to offer, even while their neighbors were chomping on cardboard tomatoes flown in from Mexico and California.
It turns out it’s both difficult and expensive. Local grains don’t exist, except for a few heritage grains. Yes, there are local free-range cows and chickens, but the animals are raised on non-local feed. In summer, BC's abundant farmer's markets serve them well, but many of the supermarkets still sell much shipped produce, except for, say, local organic salad mix at $17.99 a pound. Summer, of course, only lasts so long.
And here’s the kicker: Vegetarianism doesn’t work well because soy isn’t grown locally. So they’re forced to ask this question: “Does vegetarianism fit into a local, sustainable diet?” And the answer isn’t clear at all. (Part II--"Wanted: A Perfectly Local Chicken"--covers this tricky issue.)
Their few exceptions--and funny moments, such as an attempt to make strawberry preserves with honey--begin adding up. Their butts also begin to shrink. (Add a diet book to the reality TV show .)
Their experiment points (again) to this fact: Eating is complicated for thoughtful people who believe that everyday actions such as buying food have a heck of an impact on the world. On the other hand, just the fact that they're attempting the feat, and that they have an attentive audience, bodes well for efforts to limit our impacts.
I happened to pick up a July 2005 copy of Gourmet magazine this week, and noticed that writer Bill McKibben was trying a similar experiment in the Vermont/Lake Champlain area. Interestingly, his take was more positive than the BC couple's. Does that mean that Vermont is ahead of BC in small-scale food production?
July 14, 2005
Some more interesting vehicle news, this time on car sharing companies, which according to The New York Times are catching on a bit in Europe:
Studies suggest that one shared car replaces 4 to 10 private cars, as people sell their old vehicles...The result is a 30 to 45 percent reduction in vehicle miles traveled for each new customer.
Now, 30 to 45 percent is a pretty sizeable decline in driving. But it shouldn't come as much of a surprise; as any economist would predict, converting a fixed cost (e.g., the cost of buying the car) to a variable cost (e.g., the cost of renting a shared car, which for Seattle Flexcars costs up to $9 per hour) makes people far more selective about how much they drive. And that probably saves car-sharers money overall: yes, they pay more for each trip, but they make fewer trips, and also avoid much of the expense of purchasing and maintaining a car for personal use.
A few other good things about car sharing. If the Times' figures for Europe are relevant to the US -- i.e., each shared car really replaces 4-10 personal cars -- then car sharing can reduce toxic emissions associated with car manufacturing anywhere from 75% to 90%. And that's a lot of toxics avoided: for typical cars, about 60% of the life-cycle toxics emissions from cars comes from making them, rather than driving them.
Also, since a typical shared car is driven more than a personal car, it makes more sense for companies like Flexcar to invest in super-efficient vehicles. For a car driven 5,000 miles a year, it may be hard to financially justify paying the extra money for a hybrid system; but for a car driven 20,000 miles a year, the finances pencil out a lot easier.
Which means that, between efficiency gains and reductions in driving, someone who is in a position to ditch a 20 mpg personal car for a 50 mpg shared hybrid Prius or Civic could reduce their personal gasoline consumption by, oh, about 75 percent. And they'd save money to boot. Quite a deal, no matter how you look at it.
Ok, so this isn't exactly a trend, and it has little bearing (yet) on the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. But I thought I'd point it out anyway: Smart cars -- the product of a joint venture between Mercedes-Benz and Swiss watchmaker Swatch -- are now available for sale in the US. Just two have been sold so far, but there are plans for more.
They had to do a little tweaking to the design -- including adding airbags -- to make sales legal in the US. But the mini-cars get 50-60 miles per gallon, and I'm told that in Vancouver, BC -- where the Smart has already been available for a while -- it's legal to park them perpendicular to the curb. They're that tiny.
It's way, way too early to call this sort of thing a trend. But it could be a sign that, with gas prices reaching new and dizzying heights seemingly every week, the appeal of fuel-efficient vehicles is beginning to catch on in the US.
Zero Sum Logging
Here's a clear example of "perverse incentives," a phrase NEW employs to describe counterproductive policies...
The Oregon senate just moved to aggressively increase logging on state forestlands. The senators aren't just cut-and-run profiteers, they want to raise money for the common school fund. In Oregon, as in Washington, revenue from timber harvests on state land is constitutionally reserved for schools and a few other public goods.
The unfortunate result is that limiting cutting means squeezing a portion of, say, the school construction budget. In Oregon, where the state's budget is already spread too thin, schools need all the help they can get. But the state forests are not in particularly good shape either. In fact, state forestry officials worry that ratcheting up cutting will erode the ecological function of forests, perhaps jeopardizing coastal salmon streams in the case of the Elliott State Forest.
Needless to say, it's silly to pit two of the state's most important resources--education and natural heritage--against one another in a zero sum game. Unfortunately, the only available way out of the dilemma isn't exactly easy: it would require changing the state's constitution.
Future Passed? Notes From Buckley, Washington
Editor's Note: Dan Staley, a frequent commenter on the Scorecard blog, will contribute an occasional column on land use and quality of life from Buckley, Washington, a small town near Mt. Rainier where Dan serves as planning director. This is his first post.
I bicycle a short 5-8 miles to work in Buckley every day, taking different routes through a beautiful pastoral landscape that is full of little surprises. For the past two weeks, I’ve been taking the same route to work and home, in order to see a small herd of elk hanging out on the north side of the White River. These elk are important indicators of Buckley’s future, and I want to be sure I get to know them--at least a little--as I help set the pattern for Buckley’s growth.
I’m the new planning director for Buckley, located in eastern Pierce County, Washington. Buckley’s current population is about 4500 people, all nestled in between the White River and the northern foothills of Mt. Rainier. Buckley also has the last flat land before you head up into the Cascades--and that is the crux of the future challenges we face, being within commutable distance of Seattle and Tacoma and their high-paying jobs.
The citizens of Buckley--like many in the Northwest--are unequivocal in their wish to maintain their quality of life. Folks moved out here to be under Mt. Rainier and to have open space all around--including space in their yards. However, land speculation is rampant and many here wonder what this means for the future of Buckley, as we expect to grow by about 3500 people-–45 percent--in the next 10-15 years. Eric recently wrote about salmon being a canary in a coal mine, and Buckley may serve that same function for many cities on the rural fringe.
So. How do we maintain such a quality of life in the face of land speculation and impending development, while planning for the goals of the Growth Management Act? Do we approach this challenge like so many other towns in Washington are facing, even though we are unlike many of these towns? Do we adopt New Urbanism, even though it doesn’t have a formal theory (it is more like art and science) and we're an exurb? How much do we affect the real estate market to meet Buckley’s goals?
All planners manipulate markets when they plan--zoning arose because cities have externalities ("nuisances"). I have to justify my intervention in the real estate market to meet GMA guidelines, and in my mind, I’m justifying it by making Buckley resilient--as in how an ecosystem is resilient. I avoid concepts like "resilient" or "sprawl" with my neighbors, however, so I explain how it benefits them as individuals: their kids can buy a house here, there are preferred designs, we are making walkable neighborhoods. I also cannot use "sprawl" or "resilient" with decision-makers, so I explain how it benefits the elected’s constituents: efficient services, maintained or improved quality of life, strong businesses.
Oh, and the elk will still be around, too.
Buckley is like a little ecosystem out here, and I want to keep it that way. Please pass along your thoughts on these issues, especially regarding resilience or how you are making your place work.
July 13, 2005
On our online forum about the fundamentals of sustainability that should guide Northwest Environment Watch's work, we proposed the principle measure what matters.
We rather like the phrase. We first used it as the subtitle to our book This Place on Earth 2002, Measuring What Matters and have referred to it again and again ever since. Our logic: you need to measure what matters because what gets measured gets fixed.
But, as some thoughtful readers have pointed out, this only begs the question of what matters. Our answer: "the health and well-being of our families, the strength of our communities, and the integrity of our natural heritage."
What do you think? What matters to you? Do you think measuring what matters ought to be one of our key principles?
Head on over to our other blog and leave your comments there!