September 23, 2005
UPDATE 9/26/05: Pretty good blow-by-blow coverage of the monorail's unraveling in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on Saturday.
We're not dead yet, proclaims the monorail board.
Just minutes ago, the board unanimously agreed to send the monorail back to the voters this November. This is apparently a last ditch effort to resuscitate the project in the face of stern opposition from the mayor and city council. The new plan may actually be financially viable because it will truncate the full Green Line route: the line would now run from the West Seattle Junction to downtown to Dravus Street in Interbay (between Magnolia and Queen Anne), a rather obvious solution that I've suggested before. (This slightly shortens the West Seattle route and lops off Ballard with the expensive bridge across the ship canal.)
What the heck is going on?
To my list of criticisms of the monorail board, let me now add: politically clueless and frenetic. It didn't exactly take a rocket scientist (or even a monorail planner) to see that city officials were serious about holding the project accountable to a financing plan that could pass a straight-face test. Why the monorail waited until the 13th hour to offer voters a new plan is utterly beyond me.
There is one possible silver lining, however. A shortened monorail line could conceivably be affordable. And the shortened line would still bridge the critical link between West Seattle and downtown. That could help replace lost capacity in the Alaska Way Viaduct, which is looking ever more likely to come down and be replaced by, well, nothing.
Perhaps instead of funneling billions into substitute road capacity, the city-county-state-feds should consider funding the monorail. If government chips in some money, they could--and should--attach some meaningful strings: namely, better leadership and public oversight. But I suppose I'm just being Pollyanna.
Monorail Stopped In Its Tracks
Well, so much for that transit project.
I just finished listening to the Seattle City Council unanimously approve a resolution to deny the monorail permits for building and right-of-way. They also agreed to do everything possible to get the state legislature to dissolve the monorail project. Basically, the council is concurring with Mayor Nickels, who demanded that the monorail return to voters with an improved plan. The monorail board refused and the city pulled the plug. Absent city permitting approval, the monorail's already troubled bonds will become anathema to investors, thereby essentially killing the project.
So barring something completely unforeseen, the monorail is effectively dead. But while the corpse is still warm, Seattle needs to conduct a thorough post-mortem.
Around the office here, I
am was known as something of a rabid monorail proponent. Obviously, I was aghast at the ridiculously flawed financing scheme this summer that put the monorail on a collision course with the mayor and council. Still, I remained hopeful that the monorail board would revise their plan and come up with something credible, even if it was for a less extensive line.
One thing I'd like to see investigated--apart from the chicanery or incompetence of the monorail board--was the unreasonable hostility to the monorail that emanated from city hall and other city leaders. Despite consistently strong support from voters, the monorail made little headway with many decisionmakers, some of whom seemed predisposed to hate the thing at every step along the way. I wonder if that hostility didn't help create a culture of defensiveness and secrecy in the monorail project that ultimately led to its undoing.
City officials probably did the right thing today in the face of a recalcitrant monorail board. But I'd argue that the blame for the project's failure lies partly with city hall, as well as other institutions like the Downtown Business Association. I'd like to see some soul-searching from our leaders about the fractious and close-minded civic culture that stifled the monorail.
We should, of course, continue to debate the merits of transit alternatives. What is cost effective? What is efficient? What is politically possible? And what do ordinary residents--as opposed to engineers and billionaires--actually want to see in our fair city?
More importantly, we need to acknowledge a basic truth: there will never be a perfect transit system (or road project, for that matter). If we agree that we need better transit in the Emerald City, we should stop hunting for perfection and start looking for something practical. And we should do it with a quickness.
September 22, 2005
The Manhattan Project?
This article -- which, in large measure, holds up Vancouver as a model for the redevelopment of lower Manhattan -- makes this arresting claim:
[D]owntown Vancouver has recently eclipsed Manhattan as North America’s highest density residential area.
This claim came as quite a bit of a surprise to me -- I thought I was a Vancouver statistics geek, but I'd never heard that before. And after fiddling on the internet for a bit, I now realize why: as far as I can tell, it's simply wrong.
According to the 2001 Canadian Census, Vancouver's downtown peninsula -- the densest part of the city -- had just over 70,000 residents in a little over 2 square miles, for an average population density of just under 50 people per acre. It's probably a bit higher now, but not all that much.
Meanwhile, Manhattan squeezes more than 1.5 million people into just 23 square miles, which means that the average acre in Manhattan has 100 residents. (That, of course, includes Central Park, which occupies well over a square mile in the center of the city. Excluding that, as is done for Stanley Park in Vancouver, pushes Manhattan densities a bit higher.)
That makes Manhattan, on average, about twice as dense as the most heavily populated neighborhood in Vancouver.
I'm not trying to take anything away from Vancouver. Its record in creating livable urban neighborhoods is truly remarkable. Lower Manhattan can learn a lot from what Vancouver's accomplished over the past few decades. Still, there's no purpose to be served in propagating bad information: that can only lead to distorted expectations and, ultimately, bad decisions.
Update: Apparently, Vancouver's downtown peninsula isn't even as dense as Brooklyn, let alone Manhattan. Jeez.
If anyone tries to tell you that there's no real evidence that humans are having much effect on the atmosphere, just show them this:
The graph represents carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, and the red line at the end -- part of which is enlarged in the upper left of the graph -- respresents the increase since the industrial revolution began. So right now, CO2 levels are the highest they've been in, oh, nearly half a million years.
Hat tip to WorldChanging.
September 20, 2005
Is Gas Elastic?
In 1999 you could buy a gallon of gas in Washington state for less than a buck. As recently as 3 years ago, gas prices averaged about $1.20 a gallon. Right now, though, expect to shell out about $2.85.
So what has a 136% price hike done to gasoline consumption? As it turns out, not a lot. In 2002, the average Washington resident went through about 8.4 gallons of gas per week. Based on data through July 2005, that's now down to about 8.1 gallons per week -- a 4 percent reduction.
Elastic? Not so much.
Of course, the trends are a bit confusing. The state economy was in the doldrums in 2002, but has picked up a bit of steam since; if economic conditions had remained constant, the decline in gas consumption might have been a little steeper.
Over the longer term, the trends are a little more promising. Person for person, gas consumption peaked in 1978, at 9.7 gallons per person per week. We're down 17% from then. (Which convinces me that federal CAFE standards--while far from perfect--really did accomplish something useful.)
Remember, though, these are per capita trends. Population growth has worked at cross purposes to improved fuel efficiency: all told, Washington state is on track to use the same total amount of gasoline this year as it did in 2002, and possibly a bit more.
The $100 Million Beetle
The mountain pine beetle, that scourge of British Columbia's inland forests, has officially reached new heights of infamy. Yesterday, provincial Premier Gordon Campbell called it, "the most significant natural disaster to ever hit British Columbia's forests." The province is planning to spend Can$100 million to stop the estimated 1.13 trillion tree-killing bugs. (Incidentally, that means that pine beetles outnumber people by about a quarter-million to one in BC.)
One ray of hope perhaps, is Blue Pine Products, a Prince George-based manufacturer selling small wood items that showcase the intricate blue streaking of beetle-killed wood. Their products seem mostly too small to have a serious impact on forestry in BC, but it's a start toward finding commercial uses for the beetle trees.
Prince of Whales
It's been a gloomy few weeks, but here's a bright spot: As noted by NEW's Eric de Place and People for Puget Sound's Kathy Fletcher in a Seattle P-I op-ed today, Puget Sound's resident orca population has been slowly rebounding over the past couple of decades, with 90 southern resident orcas visiting the Sound this summer. This trend is good news for orcas, of course, but offers a larger message:
"As the top predators of a diverse food web, the orcas embody the fate of the entire Sound. Their growing numbers are a promising sign that we can successfully improve ecological conditions, not only for the orcas but for us too. Cleansing the Sound of toxics and bringing back its abundance of salmon will take work--but there is plenty of evidence that we can do it."
Gas Mileage: (More) Truth in Advertising
We previously discussed problems with the way the EPA lets auto manufacturers measure the fuel efficiency of their vehicles. What with all the hullabaloo, the EPA proposed to revise its testing methods by the end of the year so they more resemble the real world. According to the Boston Globe, the three core changes would be to:
- Alter testing to reflect today's more aggressive and high-speed driving habits, as well as address traffic-stifling congestion in cities and expanding suburbs.
- Account for vehicles driven in cold climates, where fuel economy suffers.
- Calculate the impact of accessories, such as air conditioners, that cut fuel economy.
While individual drivers still might find that their vehicles' gas mileage doesn't match up with official figures, because of differences in driving conditions and habits, the new EPA estimates would give them a better idea about actual annual fuel costs. Even better, since CAFE standards are based on these tests, more accurate tests would mean more accurate CAFE estimates, likely causing auto manufacturers to improve fuel efficiency all around.
September 19, 2005
The Scrap Heap Is History?
Check it out: by 2015, all cars sold in Europe must be 95% recyclable. Apparently, Mercedes-Benz already has a 2007-model year car that meets the requirement.
Part of me wonders if automotive engineers aren't actually excited by this sort of challenge. It seems that whenever a new idea like this comes along, the auto executives complain about how impossible and costly it will be -- but as soon as the industry's hands are forced, the engineers figure out how to pull it off faster and cheaper than the executives had claimed was possible. It happened with catalytic converters, with seat belts, with air bags. And now, if early signs are any guide, it's happening with recycling.
As big-time blogger Duncan Black noted over the weekend, high gasoline prices seem to have boosted ridership on some of the the nation's transit systems -- which led big-time blogger Matthew Yglesias to speculate that gas consumption may be more sensitive to price than economists have predicted.
Yglesias' take seems mistaken to me. Nationwide, less than 5 percent of all commuting trips are taken on transit; and commutes represent a minority of all trips that people make, but a fairly large share of all transit trips taken. So even if transit ridership were boosted by, say, 20% -- which is a huge spike indeed -- that might represent a decrease in vehicle trips of, oh, a half a percent or so at most.
In fact, it seems to me that any recent increases in transit ridership are pretty much in line with what economists would predict from recent gas price increases. (See here, especially table 8, for a summary of economic predictions for the relationship between fuel prices and demand.) Of course, that doesn't necessarily undermine Yglesias' main point, which is that higher gas taxes would decrease fuel consumption.
I've also got to second this part of Duncan Black's response to Yglesias:
[L]and use patterns in much of the country have made it quite difficult for any proposed transit systems to really improve the lot of most existing homeowners/commuters. Expanding rail systems into existing suburban areas really only makes...sense if its accompanied by some land use changes in those areas (there at least needs to be higher density development around the stations themselves).
As far as I can tell, this is just about right: transit is rarely cost-competitive in low-density, sprawling neighborhoods, since both riders and destinations are simply too spread out. (Color me extremely skeptical about about supply-side theories of transit ridership.) Which means that, since the shape of our cities changes much slower than gas prices, a lot of us may be stuck in our cars no matter what gas prices do in the short term.