October 20, 2005
SUV's Rap Sheet
Driven to extremes: Fear of crime and the rise of the sport utility vehicle in the United States
During the mid-1980s, the sport utility vehicle (SUV) emerged as one of the most popular automobiles in the United States, a trend that continued throughout the 1990s...Situating the SUV in the context of fear of crime and risk management during the 1980s and 1990s, it is suggested that the SUV’s popularity reflects American attitudes toward crime, random violence, and the importance of defended personal space. While consumer attraction to the SUV is typically attributed to two key features--safety and interior space--these pragmatic justifications may be viewed as euphemistic. Safety is not road safety but personal safety. Space is not interior cargo space but social space, including the privileged ability to traverse inhospitable terrain to remove oneself from society.
This seems somewhat right to me. SUVs aren't particularly safe vehicles to drive. But they feel safe, at least to some drivers. And that mostly has to do with being large and imposing -- and being perceived as a menace. Those things might be important if the threat is other people who mean to do you harm. But they're irrelevant--or, more accurately, dangerous--if the threat is flipping upside down at 60 mph.
Which makes me wonder if there's any way to convince people that being safe is actually more important than feeling safe. Sometimes I doubt it.
October 19, 2005
Geography of Fast Food
An article in the Seattle Times today highlights another link between land use and obesity: access to healthy food. By overlaying maps (pdfs) of house prices, grocery stores, and fast food restaurant locations, UW researchers demonstrate that lower income areas, such as Kent and Auburn, have fewer grocery stores and more fast food restaurants per square mile than higher income areas, such as Ballard and Redmond. Obesity rates show a similar pattern: 27.8 percent of Auburn residents are obese compared to 7 percent of Capitol Hill/East Lake residents.
Access to safe places for exercise may be another factor. Lower income people who don't feel safe walking in their neighborhoods may not be able to afford a gym membership or even bus fare to a community center.
This is just one more link coupling poverty and obesity. Previous research has demonstrated that energy dense foods (like burgers) are generally cheaper than nutrient dense foods (like fruits and vegetables).
Healthy choices have long term benefits, but fast food is easiest in the short term especially if the grocery store is harder to get to. I'd be tempted by the grease too if the kids were hungry now, three fast food joints were closer than the grocery store, plus they're cheaper and I wouldn't have to cook or clean up.
Seems to me that a healthy lifestyle is really a choice only when your life is not overly constrained by time, money, and geography.
Out of Sight, Out of Mouth
New research indicates that we eat more candy when it's close by and visible--and then we underestimate how much we've eaten. But on the other hand, according to the researchers, "If we move food away from us, even 6 feet, we eat less and we overestimate how much we have eaten."
I wonder if this lesson can be broadened to include the larger urban environment. Do we eat more fast food if it's accessible and visible? In light of the growing obesity epidemic, can we realize health benefits simply by making it harder to get to unhealthy food?
Personally, I think our behavior--or at least mine--is often powerfully affected by subtle forms of suggestion. In fact, even as I type this I'm munching on my third or fourth handful of candy corns that someone put in a bowl in the office kitchen. I don't even like candy corns.
Lewis & Clark Go Digital
Lewis & Clark's contact with the natural world just entered the digital age. Courtesy of Oregon State University, their natural history findings are mapped, archived, clickable, and zoom-able. Thomas Jefferson would be so envious.
A complete day-by-day map of Lewis and Clark's route across the western United States allows users to chart their progress from St. Louis to the Pacific and back. More importantly, each day's record includes a count of the wildlife they saw, animals they killed, human settlements they encountered, and even the vegetation that they passed through.
200 years ago yesteday, for example, on the Columbia, just below the mouth of the Walla Walla River, they recorded 40 dog kills (I presume this means they killed 40 dogs?), saw grouse, and also saw occupied lodges, but found no wood except for small willows.
Even today, the Corps of Discovery's journals are an important resource for biologists establishing the historical abundance and distribution of wildlife. They can also be an important reference point for understanding the current conditions of our natural heritage. Today, for instance, sage grouse no longer inhabit the regions of Washington where Lewis recorded them "in great abundance."
October 18, 2005
Sound the Alarm
The Uncertain Future of BC's Forests
From British Columbia, more evidence of the danger of hitching an economy to resource extraction and commodity exports. As the Vancouver Sun explains today, the BC forest industry is bearing the brunt of a "perfect storm." A rising Canadian dollar, higher energy prices, and the ongoing softwood lumber dispute with the United States are combining to cripple the forest industry.
Not surprisingly, the industry wants relief from the government in the form of tax credits and write-offs. But how much more coddled can BC forest companies get?
As Will Horter, executive director of the Victoria-based Dogwood Initiative, recently opined in the Tyee, Canadian logging companies are already paying ridiculously low fees to cut on crown land. In fact, in seven forest districts, more than half of the cut logs were paid for by just 25 cent stumpage fees. Not only is that a bad deal for government coffers, which could reasonably extract much more revenue from public timber sales, but the low stumpage fees are a big contributor to the softwood trade wars that result in tariffs at the US border. Raising the stumpage fees might resolve the softwood dispute, generate more revenue, and put a fair price on public forest resources to boot.
Of course, even that optimistic scenario would still leave the industry coping with the trade effects of a strong Canadian dollar and high energy prices. But future high energy prices are likely unavoidable. And the fact that the forest industry is susceptible to high prices is just more evidence of its fundamental weakness. In fact, the Canadian economy is already among the most energy intensive in the world. (That is, it takes more energy to produce a dollar of wealth in Canada than almost any place else in the world, including the United States.) Continuing to rely on energy intensive industries like the forest sector for jobs, revenue, and economic growth is probably a recipe for disaster.
October 17, 2005
"Five Finger Discount" in National Forests
The ugly flip side to the US Forest Service's budgetary inability to prepare old-growth timber sales: the agency's finances are so anemic that it can't prevent thievery of other forest products.
Now admittedly, the harvest of mosses, mushrooms, and huckleberries doesn't have the aesthetic impact of clearcut logging. But even so, the biological capital in our national forests' is being drawn down unsustainably by collectors both commercial and private. What's especially annoying is the echo of the bad old days of rampant cutting on federal land: The common storehouses of the country's natural heritage, national forests, are once again being pilfered for profit.
A good article today in the Oregonian, with special attention to the Siuslaw and Gifford Pinchot National Forests.
UPDATE: Also, today on ENN, a first-rate article on the sociology and economy that surrounds the harvest of non-timber forest products.
UPDATE 10/20/05: A federal judge just ordered the Forest Service to re-open national forests to non-timber harvesting activities, such as mushroom collecting and Christmas tree cutting. The Oregonian has the coverage.
Gas: Still Cheaper than Roads, Insurance, and Parking
An interesting article from the Washington Post finds that taking Metro -- DC's light rail system -- into downtown may not save suburban commuters all that much money. Even with gas at $3 per gallon, the savings on fuel, plus wear and tear on vehicles, are offset by increased spending on transit fares. You really only start to save if you can use transit often enough that you can ditch one of your cars; otherwise, it's a bit of a wash.
It's a useful piece of analysis, as far as it goes -- though since DC's Metro tends to be more expensive than transit systems in the Northwest, the lessons may not be transferrable. Still, the most important part of the analysis is what's left out:
- Parking: The article doesn't look at downtown parking costs. That's all well and good if you get "free" parking (that is, parking that someone else pays for). If you don't, deciding not to drive downtown could save you a bundle: if my experience with DC is any guide, parking is way, way more expensive than gas.
- Insurance: The article counts car insurance as a fixed cost -- which is basically right. Under the current way we pay for insurance, reducing the amount you drive doesn't necessarily reduce what you pay for car insurance. However, if you could pay for car insurance by the mile, rather than in an "all you can drive" plan, taking transit could also save insurance costs -- which are substantial.
- Congestion and Road Space: Road space only seems free. But if traffic is clogged, every car on the road delays every other driver backed up behind it. Those delays have a real-world cost -- but the driver who's imposing them doesn't have to pay. However, if drivers actually had to pay a toll to use the roads -- and if the tolls were high enough to keep traffic flowing -- then they'd save even more by taking the train instead of driving.
The big lesson for me here is that, as a society, we've arranged things so that very few of the costs of driving accrue by the mile. We pay for insurance a couple of times a year, and rates are only partially adjusted to account for how far we drive. We pay for "free" parking as lower wages, higher real estate costs, and higher prices for goods and services. We make other people pay with their time for the congestion we create, rather than paying tolls to use the roads.
All these decisions -- and they really are decisions -- to externalize the costs of driving have this concrete result: even in one of the most congested regions of the country, one with an effective and popular transit system, it can still make financial sense to drive rather than take the train.
A few weeks ago, President Bush encouraged Americans to conserve fuel by cutting back on non-essential driving. Unlike some, I think that it's actually helpful to use the bully pulpit this way. I just don't think it's terribly meaningful: people respond far more to prices than to jawboning. And as Brookings Institution scholars Robert Puentes and Bruce Katz point out, the sprawling layout of American cities makes an awful lot of our driving "essential," for all practical purposes:
[W}hat the President doesn't get when he asks Americans to curtail their "non-essential travel" is that a half-century of government policies have fueled and subsidized the growth of sprawling, haphazard metropolitan communities and have dramatically increased the amount of "essential travel" required for people to live their daily lives. Driving may not be the best option, but it is often the only option for Americans to get around.
Americans venture out in their cars to find housing they can afford because housing opportunities closer-in are thwarted, while new developments on the suburban fringe are subsidized. Taking transit, biking, or walking to the corner market or to jobs located off the highway exit is neither safe nor feasible because of policies that segregate uses and cater to the car rather than the pedestrian. Federal and state policies make highways easy to build and relegate transit and other alternatives to second-class status.
These policies come with a huge hidden price tag for families, in the form of higher local taxes (to pay for needed infrastructure) and the ever-rising costs of buying, driving and maintaining cars.
Neil Pierce has similar thoughts in today's Seattle Times.
Measure 37: Down, But Probably Not Out
This is big news: last Friday, a judge in Oregon ruled that Measure 37 violates the state constitution.
To recap: Measure 37, which was approved overwhelmingly by Oregon voters last fall, required state or local governments either to compensate landowners, or to waive development restrictions, whenever land-use rules reduced the value of private property. The measure was strongly supported by timber interests, who faced limits on logging near streams and sensitive areas. And its passage wreaked havoc on the state's growth management system--which had been largely successful at protecting farmland from suburban sprawl--while creating an administrative nightmare for state and local governments who faced a deluge of complex Measure 37 cases.
As written, Measure 37 was supposed to apply only to people who bought their land before land use and zoning laws came into effect. People who bought after that, allegedly, understood what they were getting into, and weren't entitled to compensation. But the judge ruled that this violated the "equal privileges and immunities" clause of Oregon's constitution, because it created two separate classes of landowners: one with special rights and remedies for diminished land value, one without.
Last Friday's ruling was definitive and sweeping. But it's not the end of the debate -- not by a longshot. Appeals are already planned, and Measure 37's supporters will undoubtedly be back soon with another -- perhaps even more sweeping -- property rights proposal. And if I had to guess, the proponents of Measure 37 will be looking to open up the system to all landowners, not just recent purchasers. If that were to pass, of course, it would make the chaos engendered by Measure 37 look tame in comparison.