December 20, 2005
Japan Gets PAYD
Here's a little something I'll be keeping an eye on: Japanese insurance company Aioi has started to offer pay-by-the-mile car insurance. (See page 2 of this pdf.) This is an especially nifty development, since it means that Aioi will be working out some kinks in the technology (the company will verify mileage with a device installed in policyholders' cars) which might help PAYD make the leap across the Pacific.
As we've said many times, pay-as-you-drive insurance (or PAYD) offers huge advanatages. Overall, the system is fairer than the all-you-can-drive insurance that most of us buy: people who don't drive much tend to incur less crash risk, and they wind up subsidizing people who do a lot of driving. Even the policies that give a little price break for low-mileage drivers still make the people who drive the least subsidize everyone else. And not only is PAYD fairer to low-mileage drivers, it also creates an automatic disincentive for extra driving: just as an all-you-can-eat buffet makes it more likely that you'll gorge yourself, all-you-can-drive insurance makes it more likely that you'll drive more than your really need.
We've long been hoping that some auto insurer will offer PAYD in our part of the world. In 2003, Oregon even passed tax incentives to sweeten the pot. But so far, no company has taken the bait. And that's pretty understandable -- PAYD suffers from the "first mover" problem, in that the first company to offer PAYD not only has to create a new market for this kind of insurance, it also has to work out all of the technical kinks in tracking and verifying policyholders' mileage.
But if US insurers can build on Aioi's technology, much of the technological part of the first mover problem gets solved. And if Aioi can figure out how to market PAYD in Japan, it just might convince US insurers that there might be the same kind of business opportunity on this side of the Pacific. Neat!
December 19, 2005
All I Want for Christmas is a Sidewalk
It's the most dangerous time of year to be a pedestrian or a bicyclist: short days mean commutes in the dark, overcast weather obscures pedestrians even during daylight, and rain and snow increase the stopping distance for both drivers and cyclists. But as the Seattle Times reports, better infrastructure, such as in Washington's recently updated wish list of pedestrian and cyclist projects, can make walking and biking both safer and more convenient -- not just in wintertime, but year round.
Periodically King County compiles reports on the causes and situations surrounding pedestrian deaths, most recently for the years 2000 through 2003. In short, most fatalities occur when pedestrians either (a) do not follow traffic regulations, and/or (b) are impaired by age (old or young) or alcohol.
This suggests two things to me. First, that walking is fairly safe if you are a sober, law-abiding adult, especially if you have a safe place to walk. But in King County nearly 13 percent of the pedestrians were hit walking on a road without a sidewalk. And while people over the age of 60 made up one out of every four deaths, most were following the law and crossing in a crosswalk. With limited mobility, seniors often take more time to cross, so changes such as longer signal times and better lighting at crosswalks can make a big difference.
Second, because responsible walking is not as dangerous, building safer places to walk, and advertising them, could not only reduce pedestrian fatalities, but also encourage more walking. (And as we've reported before, there seems to be safety in numbers for pedestrians -- that is, the more pedestrians there are on the streets, the lower the odds that they'll be struck by a car.)
Reading this and other pedestrian fatality and safety studies, it seems to me that, yes, pedestrians need to be visible, follow the law, and look well before crossing the street, but they also need a decent infrastructure for walking -- including sidewalks, bike paths, streetlights, and signaled street crossings. Other countries with much higher pedestrian rates also have much lower fatality rates. We can do better, too.
December 15, 2005
Parks Instead of Parking - Literally
Via a blog reader, here's a nifty story about a "landscape remixing" effort in San Francisco that illustrates a point we've long made in a small, powerful way.
Between noon and two on November 16, a collective called Rebar turned one of the city's parking spaces into a small park. They fed the meter, rolled out some turf, put up a park bench and a tree, hung a sign, and encouraged people to hang out, read the paper, and enjoy the greenery that would usually be taken up by a vehicle. (Watch the slide show.)
Their aim was to:
"...transform a parking spot into a PARK(ing) space, thereby temporarily expanding the public realm and improving the quality of urban human habitat, at least until the meter ran out. By our calculations, we provided an additional 24,000 square-foot-minutes of public open space that Wednesday afternoon. "
'Tis the season to be jolly, and all that. But, apparently, not if you want to accuse someone--or a lot of someones--of being naughty. This past Sunday, author Joel Kotkin launched a broadside against Portland, Oregon by publishing a dismissive op-ed in the Oregonian that derides the city thus...
Portland is becoming what I call an Ephemeral City. What do ephemeral cities do? Not much by traditional standards. They don't create a lot of jobs for working or middle-class people. Instead they mostly exist to celebrate themselves and provide an attractive setting for visitors and would-be migrants...
An ephemeral city doesn't compete with lesser places -- you know, those ugly cities with functional warehouses and factories, Wal-Marts and strip malls -- for jobs, companies or investors. An ephemeral city's economy relies largely on a high level of self-esteem among its residents.
Not to put words in Kotkin's mouth, but he seems to believe that Portland is simply too focused on creating an enjoyable city--the horror!!--and not enough on...well, manufacturing or strip malls or something sturdy and middle-American.
Now, I happen to feel that most of what Kotkin is trying to pass of as "analysis" is simply sneering. And if you scratch the surface, much of his case simply falls apart.
Economist Joe Cortright and George Washington University prof MIchael Lewyn have done a good job pointing out the inconsistencies in Kotkin's thinking -- and, just as importantly, showing where Kotkin's just mouthing off, as opposed to marshalling facts in support of an argument. Just to pile on, here are a few things that I thought worth mentioning...
- Kotkin writes: "Portland's sprawl has continued to spiral about as much, or even more,
than most American regions." This, as it turns out, is simply false -- unless, of course, Kotkin has some special definition of "spiral" or "sprawl" in mind. Back in reality, though, greater Portland has had some remarkable success in recent decades in curbing the loss of farmland and open space at the urban fringe.
- More Kotkin: "Four decades ago, author Neil Morgan used the term 'narcissus of the
West" to describe an already self-indulgent San Francisco. Now it's
time for the City by the Bay to move over -- the City of Roses wants to
take its place in front of the mirror." Hmmm. Seems like San Francisco's done surprisingly well for itself over the last couple of decades -- it attracted over 100,000 new residents since 1980; has one of the highest median family incomes in the country; is the major center of the business and finance industries on the west coast. Etc. San Francisco ephemeral? Every city should be so lucky.
- Still more..."Portland already has one of the lowest percentages of little tykes among American cities." True enough. But the share of households with kids is higher in Portland than in, say, San Francisco, Seattle, and Denver. Portland's just barely behind Minneapolis-St. Paul on this measure. But it's barely worth quibbling over numbers here, since it's not at all clear to me why it matters what share of in-city households have kids. Some cities attract and hold families with kids; some don't. It depends on a lot of factors -- the amount of single-family housing in the city; the size and density of the city; median incomes; poverty levels; the age and education levels of the population; whether empty-nesters choose to move out of their urban homes; you name it. (I doubt that the alleged "high level of self esteem" among Portland's residents has any role at all here.) And as Kotkin points out, lots of people move to the suburbs to have kids, for all sorts of reasons. So how does this make Portland a bad city, exactly?
- And this..."As regulation helped boost the housing prices in the close-in areas, the middle class has moved farther and farther out. It turns out that most families -- yes, they still exist -- usually opt not to raise their kids inside sardine cans if they can at all help it." This isn't even wrong -- it's just incoherent. You see, Portland can deal with its population influx--resulting from its deserved reputation for quality of life--in one of two ways. It can accept more density by building more multi-family housing within the city, for example by letting developers turn existing single-family homes into duplexes, condos, apartment complexes or row houses. Or it can prohibit density by stopping new construction, which would cause the price of the existing housing stock to rise as demand for housing outstrips supply. Either way, lots of middle-income families with kids will choose to move to the suburbs, either to seek a different combination of amenities, or lower prices. But in Kotkin's view, these basic market dynamics--more people competing for a finite amount of land--somehow prove that Portland is kid-unfriendly, narcissistic, and over-regulated. (Maybe if Portland could just make some more land, everyone could get a big house and a big green lawn at a reasonable price, all within city limits -- and a pony!!)
I could go on (and on) about Kotkin's whine, but I'll stop here -- except to note one thing.
A few years back, Portland contrarian Wendell Cox (one of Kotkin's sources for the article) held an anti-smart growth conference for conservative think tanks and funders. From what I read the conference was, in essence, a training session for how to vilify smart growth. The advice: don't engage on the substance -- because that gets sidetracked into a discussion of what kind of communities we collectively want to create, which is smart growth's strongest turf. Instead, the best way to stop smart growth is to tar its advocates as latte-sipping, brie eating urban elites who look down on ordinary Americans, are opposed to freedom of choice, and want to tell everyone else the how and where to live.
Kotkin's op-ed seems to flip this general strategy on its head. Now it's Kotkin and his ilk who are looking down on people who've freely chosen to live in Portland -- they're narcissistic and self-important, and insufficiently interested in bearing children and building strip malls, Walmarts, and factories.
So who's the sneering elitist now?
Toward a Biodiversity Accounting
It's no secret that native biodiversity is on the ropes, in the Northwest and around the world. And because we frequently care so deeply for the places and species that we love, we tend to make conservation decisions with our hearts but not our heads. I don't believe for a moment that passion isn't important for conservation, but better information about the most severe threats may be even more important.
So it's a good first step that a number of conservation scientists recently published an roster of 794 species that are not only on the brink of extinction but, even worse, are hanging on in only a single location. By mapping these critical places--there are 595 of them--we can get some sense about where to direct our conservation resources in order to protect species from vanishing altogether.
Of course, this map, and other biodiversity "hotspot" maps shouldn't be the last word in conservation decisions. A number of other factors must be included in the accounting. Among them, how likely (or capable) is the host country of actually protecting conservation areas? Are there distinct evolutionary lineages that are at risk? Is it very expensive to conserve land in some areas? Is it possible to protect entire intact landscapes in some places and not others? And there are many more, I'm sure.
But still--though many questions still need answering--this map is a good step toward helping conservationists make wise investments. (Read fuller coverage in the the New York Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.)
December 14, 2005
Cascadia's Sword of Damocles
One of the wonderful things about living in Cascadia is the sense that the earth beneath our feet is very much alive. This is a land of volcanoes, hotsprings, and earthquakes--a place where geology is no distant abstraction. Even the region's name, Cascadia, is shared with a large subduction zone in the north Pacific where one continental shelf is sliding beneath another.
Yet in spite of everything, and apart from a few expensive seismic retrofits and construction projects, we Cascadians are pretty glib about our potentially catastrophic footing. But we can live in tranquil ignorance no longer: a fascinating new book blends history and geography to tell the story of a tsunami that struck Japan in 1700. The cause? A huge earthquake in Cascadia--estimated between a magnitude 8.7 and 9.2--that sent floods rippling across the Pacific.
We're all too familiar with the horrifying effects of big earthquakes--the Southeast Asian tsunami and the recent earthquake in Pakistan. But what would happen if a similar sized quake struck again in Cascadia? And what lessons can we learn from the history of the Northwest before it was inhabited by Europeans? Well, I've just now cracked the cover but I'm about to find out. And if you're looking for a Christmas gift for a geeky naturalist type, check out The Orphan Tsunami of 1700.
December 13, 2005
To Save a Species, Shoot Here
From the wilderness of British Columbia comes an innovative conservation tactic about which I am strongly... ambivalent. Raincoast Conservation Foundation is acquiring the guide-outfitting hunting rights to five areas along the central BC coast, a remote area of vast wilderness that is home to the rare "spirit bear," among other species. The angle here is probably obvious: Raincoast bought the rights in order to put a stop to hunting.
Raincoast and other conservation groups have a strong interest--one that I share--in protecting biodiversity and relatively pristine wild places. So what's my beef? It's a two-parter.
First, I'm not sure that hunting is bad for the species being hunted. Second, I'm not sure the price--Can$1.35 million plus annual licensing fees--is the best conservation use of the money.
Now on one level, hunting is obviously bad for a species because it involves, well, killing it. But the formula isn't really so simple. For at least two reasons, hunting can actually be beneficial. First, hunters often form powerful constituencies supporting conservation. Ducks Unlimited, a powerful voice for wetlands protection, is probably the best-known example, but it's worth remembering that National Wildlife Federation also first took root in the hook and bullet crowd. Just as hikers often become advocates for trails, hunters and fishermen often become advocates for protecting their recreation. In the Northwest, for instance, you can find plenty of farmers who don't care much for salmon regulations, but you can't find a single steelhead fisherman who doesn't get animated about water quality.
Second, as globe-trotting naturalist David Quammen argues in his recent book Monster of God, hunting can actually be the lifeline that rescues species from the brink of oblivion. In the Russian far east, India, Australia, and Romania, Quammen finds compelling evidence that hunting of the most objectionable sort--big game trophy hunting of endangered species by well-heeled foreigners--can spell the difference between life and death.
The reason is depressingly venal: a lot of money gets spent to bag a saltwater croc or a Siberian tiger. When done right, some of the money gets ploughed back into habitat conservation. But by far the biggest benefit, according to Quammen, is that locals see a direct, tangible (read: cash money) benefit for conserving that species. And without local protection imperiled species are all too often victimized by poaching or habitat destruction. To localize Quammen's reasoning, the perpetual specter of logging in coastal BC is a far more pernicious threat than hunting.
So hunting, which creates a conservation constituency and provides a financial incentive, is not unequivocally bad for biodiversity. Indeed, I suspect that on balance it's actually a boon. But hunting also doesn't sit well with many environmentalists who are, for perfectly legitimate reasons, ethically opposed to gratuitously killing animals. And I must admit, I have a hard time keeping my blood pressure down when I think about certain kinds of hunting, especially of big predators like grizzlies, cougars, and wolves. When I think that those emblems of wildness may wind up as adornments of faux masculinity in a Texas drawing room, I get positively pissed off. But still, that doesn't mean hunting is a bad deal for biodiversity.
Raincoast and other conservation groups argue that ecotourism can supplant hunting. Ecotourism, they argue, can infuse cash into the region and create a constituency just as hunting is alleged to do. Perhaps it can. Indeed, recent studies in the US show that Americans spend more money watching wildlife than fishing or hunting for it. But ecotourism, despite its green appellation, can also carry tremendous environmental consequences--everything from carbon emitted by many people traveling to remote locations to habitat-destroying development to keep pace with the hoped-for crowds. (Some other time I'll write a post about my deep suspicions of ecotourism as a silver bullet for conservation.)
Moreover, I don't see why BC can't reap the benefits of both ecotourism and sustainable limited-tag hunting. So while ecotourism confers many benefits, I don't see why hunting can't add more.
Finally then, there's the question of whether $1.35 million plus annual fees is worth the benefit. Owning up to opportunity costs can be a painful choice when it comes to protecting places and animals that we love, but it's even more painful for the wilderness when we choose poorly. The model Raincoast is using--buying a license and holding it for conservation--is a good one. It's been done with increasing success with water rights (keeping water in streams for fish), grazing rights (keeping livestock off fragile public lands that need breathing room to recover), and development rights (buying easements on farms, for instance, to prevent them from subdividing).
Hunting rights have even been purchased before too, though never on the scale that Raincoast is doing it. But unlike rights for water, grazing, timber, minerals, or development, the biodiversity threats of hunting rights are far less clear. I would like to know what else might have been accomplished with that money. How many acres of land could have been protected from impending habitat-destroying development? How much logging could Raincoast have prevented with that money? And how much logged-over land could have been restored?
The conservation world needs a steely-eyed list that prioritizes the ecosystems and species that are most imperiled. (More on that list tomorrow.) And then it needs an even more steely-eyed accounting of the costs of protection. What are the best buys? What are the investments that are most stable, most leveraged, most likely to reap benefits in the future? As far as I know, that accounting has never been done, but I have a strong suspicion that hunting rights would probably pencil out as a rather bad buy.
Gas Fees: The Good, The Bad, and The Curious
I'm not sure, exactly, whether this news is promising or disappointing: the San Jose Mercury News reported last week that environmental advisers to Governor Schwarzenegger are calling for a new fee on gasoline that would help pay for incentives to reduce climate-warming emissions.
The good news here is that they're considering fees on gasoline in the first place.
The bad news is that the proposed fees are tiny -- just 2.5 cents per gallon, which isn't enough to affect consumption more than a nominal amount.
The good news is that the fees will go to a good cause: there are a lot of inexpensive ways to reduce emissions, so the fees, as small as they are, could do a lot of good -- especially considering that California uses about 15 billion gallons of gasoline per year, so a 2.5 cent per gallon fee would raise $375 million per year.
The bad news is that opponents are already up in arms, blasting the idea as an unnecessary new tax on gas.
Of course, there's also a curiosity here that's worth noting. The proposed gasoline fees are similar to the "public goods charge" already levied on electricity bills. But it seems as though the outrage about new "taxes" is largely reserved for gasoline; fees on electricity get a pass. Which suggests that gasoline holds a special place in the American psyche -- we pay close attention to anything that can make gas prices go up, but let similar price increases in other parts of the economy slide by unnoticed.
One possible explanation for this is that we're a car oriented culture, and that we've come to prize cheap, unlimited mobility. I think that's only partially true. To me, it seems that we pay so much attention to the cost of gas because it's the only commodity whose price is regularly and consistently advertised on busy streets. Day to day, most people get much more information about gas prices -- which stations have cheap gas, what the recent price trends have been -- than about anything else they buy. The way that gas is advertised has made us super-attentive to its price.
Which makes me wonder what the world would be like if the harmful side effects of gasoline (money shipped out of the local economy; greenhouse gas emissions; cost of foreign entanglements; etc.) were advertised as broadly as its price.
December 12, 2005
Young at Heart
I'm not sure what to make of this, but it's interesting anyway: Young and Restless in a Knowledge Economy (pdf document), a report on how different urban areas around the US have fared in attracting new residents who are young and well educated.
Now, the report's author clearly believes that attracting talented and entrepeneurial 25-to-34 year olds is a key determinant of a city's economic vitality--a perspective that I'm not entirely sure that I share. (I think, for example, about this Brookings report that shows that cities can have little population growth but plenty of economic growth, as measured by income per capita.)
Be that as it may, the report has a couple of very interesting nuggets about Seattle and Portland. First, central Seattle (or, really, Seattle within a 3 mile radius of the central business district) saw the fastest population growth rate for young adults of any major city the authors looked at. Between 1990 and 2000 the number of residents between the ages of 25 and 34 in and around downtown Seattle grew by more than a quarter. This is especially striking since this group includes the "baby bust" generation born during the low-fertility years of the early 1970s; nationally, the absolute number of people in that age range fell over the decade, as the baby boomers aged and were replaced by the baby busters. (For example, outside of a 3 mile radius from downtown Seattle, the late-20's to early-30's population in the greater Seattle area fell by 5 percent.) So the bigger demographic trends make the concentration of young people in Seattle all the more remarkable.
This trend -- Seattle attracting lots of young adults -- shows itself in other ways as well. In 1990, 25-to-34 year olds were slightly more likely than the average Seattle resident to choose a home close to downtown. But by 2000, they were much, much more likely to choose a home near the city center. Among the cities the report considers, only in Chicago do young people show a greater predilection for living in or near downtown.
Now for Portland. The city ranked third, behind Seattle and Denver, in attracting young adults to the urban core; the population of 25-to-34 year olds in the neighbhorhoods surrounding the city center grew by a little over 20 percent. But Portland's suburbs also did surprisingly well in attracting young people. In fact, metropolitan Portland ranked 3rd among all cities in its "relative attractiveness" to young adults -- the 25-to-34 demographic grew 9 percent faster than the population overall, despite the fact that nationwide the absolute numbers of people in that age group fell.
Much has been made about how few kids there are in Northwest cities. (A year ago, the "fact" that there are more dogs than kids in Seattle made the rounds -- with some interesting discussion in David Sucher's City Comforts blog.) And there's more than a grain of truth here -- there really aren't a lot of kids in the city limits of Portland and Seattle, relative to the to total size of the population. This report may give some clues about why that's so. Well educated women tend to have children later in life; and many of the new young adults in Portland and Seattle have completed 4 year college degrees. So even though Seattle and Portland have attracted lots of people in their peak childbearing years, they seem to have been particularly attractive to precisely the kinds of people who delay childbearing, or who choose to have smaller families.
Which leads to an apparent irony -- the very same trend that some folks are treating as a harbinger of economic growth is causing others to wring their hands over the "childlessness" of the cities. But for my part, I'm not sure that these trends are worth celebrating or condemning. They just are.
BBC News reports that orcas are the most toxic-contaminated mammals in the Arctic. Fat samples recently taken from killer whales in a Norwegian fjord revealed startlingly high levels of pesticides, PCBs, and flame retardants.
Whales in the Arctic may be somewhat more susceptible because toxics often concentrate in the polar regions, but the Norwegian whales are a reminder that the southern resident orcas of Cascadia are also sickened by high levels of toxics. And unlike their Arctic brethren, the whales of BC and Washington are next door neighbors to millions of people and our heavy industry. All those increasingly banned and phased-out flame retardants persist in the environment where they can continue to poison both people and wildlife.
As we begin to plan for protecting the southern residents under the Endangered Species Act, perhaps we should consider testing the southern residents for toxics in a systematic way. The last time one of the southern residents was tested for PCBs (a dead whale that had washed ashore) it registered perhaps the highest levels of contamination ever measured in a killer whale--so high that the machines had to be re-calibrated. Not only would tests help us prioritize the most critical threats to orcas, but their levels of contamination may give us clues about how vigilant we ought to be about toxic-laden consumer products.