January 25, 2006
Some snippets from an opinion survey of Puget Sound residents, conducted last year by Washington's transportation department, yield a bit of a conundrum:
- When asked whether there's "enough", "not enough", or "too much" money going into the state's general -purpose roads and highways, 51 percent of respondents say "not enough," and only 9 percent say "too much." That is, the majority of respondents want to spend more money on roads.
- When asked the same question about transit, 45 percent say "not enough" and 16 percent say "too much."
Comparing transit and roads, the figures are fairly close -- but still, it seems that survey respondents think that road spending deserves a boost more than transit does.
But...the very next question in the survey asks respondents to choose between two statements:
- "We’ve got enough roads and highways. We need to expand our transit system with more buses, light rail, and other transportation choices to give commuters choices for their commute."
- "We’ve got plenty of transit. We need to maintain the roads we have, expand existing roads and highways, and build new roads to make faster connections for people in our region."
The result -- 51 percent of survey respondents in the Puget Sound agreed with the former statement; 38 percent with the latter. That is, survey respondents support new transit over new roads, and by a fairly wide margin.
What gives? How can public opinion tilt towards more funding for roads, when a majority believe we already have enough?
Rather than simply saying that the public is confused on the matter, a deeper dive into the survey results sheds some light. When asked about specific funding priorities, respondents preferred to devote more money to maintaining and fixing the existing roads than on building new ones. So the apparent preference for road spending, in all likelihood, largely reflects an overall desire for smoother and safer roads, not more of them. Which makes sense: new roads almost always go at the urban fringe, since most other places already have a road network -- which means that only a few residents see much actual benefit from shiny new highways.
What's less clear to me is how survey respondents would have thought about road widening projects. Does, say, adding lanes to I-405 on the east side of the Puget Sound region count as new highway spending (because it adds to capacity)? Highway maintenance (because it's not creating a whole new road, just widening an existing one)? Or transit (because if current plans go forward, buses will be one of the big beneficiaries of the new lanes)? It's not clear -- and how people think about any given road project likely depends in no small measure on how its proponents talk about it.
But what is pretty clear is this: when asked what share of tax money should go to roads vs. transit, the split is 53 percent for roads, 47 percent for transit. Let's see if the legislature concurs.
New studies of King County, Washington find that sprawl is linked to dirtier air and bigger bellies. Walkable neighborhoods (those places with higher residential density, more street connections, and nearby to shops, schools, and parks) appear to be healthier for residents and less damaging to air quality--even when taking into account age, income, education and ethnicity.
A few key findings (liberally excerpted from the full coverage in the Seattle Times):
- On average the Body Mass Index — a measure of height and weight — of residents of the more walkable neighborhoods was lower, and they were more likely to get 30 minutes of daily exercise.
- People who lived and worked in more walkable neighborhoods produced fewer pollutants associated with smog.
- A 5 percent increase in a neighborhood's walkability index was associated with a 0.23-point drop in Body Mass Index. Bigger changes in a neighborhood's walkability would be expected to produce greater differences in weight.
January 24, 2006
Looks Matter (To Ecosystems)
Oregon State University just won a $3.6 million grant for sagebrush ecosystem restoration. That's good news because sagelands conservation always seems to take a back seat to other landscapes. I wonder if the explanation for sagebrush's short shrift isn't surpisingly superficial (how's that for alliteration?). Looks matter and sagebrush just doesn't sell like the prettier places do.
If so, sagebrush ecology is paying the price for its lack of glam appeal. The American West is home to 100 million acres of sagebrush country, but it is a battered landscape. As the AP story today puts it:
Because of the invasion of non-native plants, increasing wildfires and the expansion of juniper woodlands, sagebrush ecosystems have become one of the most threatened land types in the United States, researchers say.
"We are losing sagebrush-steppe ecosystems at an alarming rate, as wildfires fueled by cheatgrass sweep across the landscape," said project coordinator Jim McIver, an associate professor of rangeland resources.
The ongoing tragedy of conservation biology, with its limited resources, is that large attractive creatures--"charismatic megafauna," in biologist-speak, such as the ivory-billed woodpecker--generate most of the hoopla and therefore receive most of the protection. Less sexy creatures are often ignored, though they may be no less critical to complete and well-functioning ecosystems.
Landscapes tend to go the same way as wildlife. People get animated by old-growth forests, coastlines, canyons, and alpine settings. These are the places that we protect in national parks, photograph endlessly, and write volumes of earnest prose about. Big conservation organizations have little trouble "branding" these ecosystems and drumming up the dollars necessary to protect them from depredations. But sagebrush country is another matter.
At first glance the drab dun-colored world can appear desiccated, windy, even lifeless. And for some reason, the aesthetics of sagebrush country are particularly anemic in the car-centered view of the world. I've never encountered another landscape that looks so dull and hostile from a car at 70 miles per hour but that can be so arrestingly beautiful and complex at pedestrian speeds.
Given their lack of superficial appeal, it's no surprise that sagebrush ecosystems are so badly stressed and under-protected. The list of insults is long: invasive species, biodiversity loss, fire suppression, unsustainable water withdrawals, grazing, cattle ranging, road-building, fencing... In many places, sagebrush country is so degraded that some of the most intact landscapes are where you would least expect them: the lands that were formerly part of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and the Yakima Training Center, a large-scale artillery range, to name just two places in Washington.
It's unfortunate that sagebrush lands are not better preserved because the ecology is worth protecting. They're home to an astonishing array of birds, rare plants, and even the big charismatic critters like elk, owls, porcupines, cougars, and my personal favorite, the sage grouse. (Sage grouse, in fact, may be one of the better simple indicators of overall sagebrush ecosystem health; and, no surprise, grouse numbers are drastically depressed from historical levels throughout most of the West.) Sagebrush landscapes are beautiful too--particularly during the springtime blooms--but to most observers they lack the dramatic flair of other places.
Sagebrush ecosystems should be near the top of the list of good conservation buys. Sagelands shelter rare and endangered plants and animals, they are under-represented in protected areas, they are are often not in high demand for important uses, and the land (or the rights to it) is comparatively inexpensive. In fact, one of the Northwest's recent conservation success stories is the Owyhee Initiative, a collaboration working to protect seldom-visited sagebrush country in southwestern Idaho. It's telling,however, that the group's website mostly advertises the conventionally scenic portions: river gorges and basalt outcroppings.
Sagebrush ecology, and it's comparative lack of conservation, strikes me as precisely the reason why we can benefit from a public biodiversity accounting. I'd bet that dollar for dollar, conservationists--and funders of conservation--could do more good for native biodiversity by protecting sagebrush country than by continuing to help the eye-candy ecosystems.
Predicting the Future
Seems to be a slow news day in Cascadia--so here's something from farther afield. The economics-oriented Angry Bear blog has a nifty post on economic forecasts, in this case, of US Gross Domestic Product.
To a remarkable extent, economic forecasters from the private sector, the White House, and the US Congress tend to agree with one another about their predictions for economic growth. Most of their forecasts agree within a few tenths of a percent--a surprising degree of unanimity about something so uncertain. Which should, perhaps, give us some confidence in their forecasts--when different sets of economic experts tend to converge on the same prediction, it probably suggests that they're all onto something. Right?
Or maybe not. As it turns out, even though the forecasters agree with one another, their predictions don't do a particularly good job of predicting the actual econonmy. In fact, rather than going through all the econometric rigamarole, if they just used a simple rule of thumb -- next year's growth will be pretty much like this year's -- they'd actually make more accurate forecasts. Sheesh!
What's going on here? Why are professional forecasters--no doubt very smart folks, and just the sort of people who'd have a handle on this sort of thing--not so good at forecasting? Part of the reason, no doubt, is that the future is inherently unknowable. Even the best forecasters can't predict the impacts of unknown events, or the "animal spirits" that seem to rule the marketplace.
Or perhaps--as James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, might have argued--the problem is that forecasters aren't a diverse enough group. As it turns out, groups of people who think pretty much alike tend to do a particularly bad job of sorting out uncertainty. They tend to make the same kinds of mistakes -- and in a group, those mistakes reinforce one another. To make better predictions, Surowiecki argues, you'd need to aggregate the opinions of people who are very different from one another, people with very different biases, experiences, and areas of expertise. To the extent that economic forecasters (whether in the private or public sector) all use the same methods and data, and share the same outlook and education, the quality of their forecasts can suffer.
This situation reminds me of the conclusions of this book (on my reading list, but not yet read), which argues that political experts do a lousy job of predicting future political events. In fact, the author argues that the more knowledgeable and expert is in a subject, the worse her/his predictions. People who are especially well versed in a subject matter tend to develop biases and blinders that make them overestimate the significance of some pieces of evidence, and underestimate the significance of others. Which makes one wonder what the value of expertise is, anyway, if it does more to cloud your judgment than clarify it (and also makes me wonder why anyone even bothers to listen to the bloviations of TV pundits, except to reconfirm their own biases).
OK, then -- economic forecasts aren't as useful as we'd like. Which, to me, raises this question: if we don't know how to predict the future, should we even try? Not trying to forecast economic trends could be considered irresponsible -- if you fail to plan, you plan to fail, and all that. But when the best minds, using the best available data, collectively come up with answers that are effectively worse than doing nothing at all, is there any real point in the exercise?
January 23, 2006
More Nails In The Coffin
Bully for them. Now, let's see what the legislature says.
(For more info on PBDEs, see here.)
Green Saves Green
A couple of new studies have found that California can meet its ambitious 2010 goals for reducing climate-warming emissions at no net cost to consumers. And, even better, meeting the even more stringent 2020 goals could actually save consumers money:
"It's basically a very good news story," said Ned Helme, president of the Center for Clean Air Policy, an environmental think tank based in Washington, D.C. "We found you could do this very cheaply."
Now, I haven't looked at the studies--and I might not really be able to judge their quality even if I had. By their nature, studies like this tend to be speculative: they show what could happen, but not necessarily what will.
Still, this seems extremely plausible to me. Despite a period of relatively high oil and gas prices, energy is still pretty cheap relative to our incomes. And as a general rule, cheap energy means wasted energy. Consumers tend to demand very short payback periods for energy efficiency investments--usually, just a couple of years at most. While most businesses would be ecstatic to take advantage of such fast rates of return, most households, apparently, aren't run to the same fianancial standards. Which means that there's still a lot of very cost-effective energy efficiency investments out there--things that could easily pay back any initial investment in short order. That's as true in the transportation sector as in the home: we already know, for example, how to boost vehicle efficiency without compromising safety.
The benefits to consumers from energy effiency investments are, if anything, likely to compound. Once you hit the payback period, energy efficiency is like a cash cow -- it just keeps saving and saving. (And saving.) Plus, since most of California's energy from oil, gas, and coal comes from out of state, energy efficiency investments will tend to keep more of California consumers' money circulating in the local economy--which can be an effective way to boost demand for local goods and services.
All in all, I wouldn't be a bit surprised to see a push to reduce global warming emissions resulting in a substantial boost to California's economy over the long term. But we'll just have to wait and see how the state responds to the news.
January 20, 2006
Burnaby on Peak Oil
Editor's note: This is by Gordon Price, former city councillor for Vancouver, BC, Director of the City Program for Simon Fraser University, and NEW board member.
In my 15 years on City Council in Vancouver, I read a lot of reports. Ninety percent of them were not exactly stimulating: lane pavings, grant approvals, appointment of the external auditor … all the things that keep a city going. Occasionally, a report would appear that grabbed your attention – and on a very rare occasion, would actually change your understanding of the world, or at least your city.
I’d like to say that such a report recently appeared on the agenda of the City of Vancouver. But it didn’t. It appeared in Burnaby – the municipality just to the east. And what a subject: "Global Peak in Oil Production: the Municipal Context."
For those interested in the subject, there’s not a lot that’s new in the report; it’s primarily a background piece. Even on those terms, it makes informative reading. What makes it significant, however, is that it was requested by politicians, prepared by staff and comes with the seal of government –- as far as I know, the first such report of its kind in Canada.
It’s not as dry as you might guess, what with some amusing quotes at the head of each section - "Today no one disagrees that the wolf is out there but differences in analyses and opinions as to when it will attack the sheep still prevail." It provides a Canadian perspective, and, after noting that "It is too late to panic. It is time to plan," it provides an appendix of actions that the municipality might take.
Will action follow? I haven’t heard the results of the debate, but the mere fact that a government body is opening the door to a subject that most leaders would prefer remain firmly shut off is a tangible action all on its own.
About yesterday's post on glass recycling -- some astute readers noticed that by focusing on recycling, I'd ignored more important priorities: reducing the use of packaging, and reusing glass bottles where practical. That's a fair enough critique. But it did make me wonder: what happened, exactly, to the practice of reusing glass bottles? I can still remember drinking Coke from reusable bottles as a kid, but I rarely see that anymore. How come? And, more to the point, how would a system of reusable glass bottles stack up against recyclable glass and plastic containers?
On the first question -- what happened to reusable bottles? -- there's this recent article that sums up the situation nicely. In a nutshell:
- Beverage marketers prefer customized bottles, with a unique shape and feel for each brand; but a reusable bottle system is most cost-effective if all bottles are interchangeable.
- Food stores don't like to take back bottles. It's an administrative hassle and takes up time and space that they'd prefer to use for other purposes.
- Consumers don't like to return bottles. Given the option, they'd prefer to recycle a bottle than return it for reuse.
Obviously, those barriers aren't insurmountable by any means. But they also don't seem to be uniquely characteristic of North American consumer culture. Though Japan's economy is far more energy-efficient than ours, its reusable bottle system, which used to be extremely effective, now seems to be falling by the wayside. (Sigh.)
Some of the same forces are at play in Japan as in the US -- beverage makers are introducing customized shapes and sizes of many drinks. But perhaps just as importantly, Japan's beverage delivery services -- which would pick up empty bottles at the same time they delivered new ones -- have declined, with more people getting their drinks from supermarkets. The decline of reusable bottles is just a side-effect of other economic and social forces.
Of course, there are public policies that could stimulate a resurgence of reusable bottles -- mandatory bottle deposits, requirements that stores accept reusable bottles, perhaps seed money for local bottlers to restart the reusable bottle system. An uphill battle, to be sure -- but it could have its benefits.
Then again, before we consider that sort of thing we should take a careful look at the possible hidden costs of reinstating a returnable bottle system. Consumers might avoid reusables; unreturned and broken bottles can eat into the energy savings of a reusable bottle system; it's even conceivable that a reusable bottle system could generate extra car trips, reducing the net-energy benefits.
Of course, reusable bottles could still save energy, reduce waste, and create local jobs, compared with glass recycling, or even with lightweight recyclable plastics. But I think we'd owe ourselves a careful accounting of just what these benefits might be before spending all the political capital needed to reboot the reusable bottle industry.
January 19, 2006
Mind the Gap
The Northwest Federation of Community Organizations just published its annual job gap study, looking at the share of jobs that actually pay a living wage (defined as one that puts healthy food, acceptable housing, and other basic living expenses within financial reach). Not too surprisingly, it found that only about a quarter of the jobs in the Northwest pay a living wage for a single-parent family with two kids. (See press coverage in Washington and Idaho.)
To me, this news seems about right. For a family with kids, the cost of living seems pretty darn high, once you factor in housing, health care, child care, rising energy bills, etc. And many, many jobs don't pay particularly well. So it's little shock that there are lots of families who have to cut corners to get by.
But as plausible as the figures from the job gap report may seem, they're also hard to square with this claim from a recent article in The American Prospect:
[A]ccording to a 2004 Roper Poll for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, 93 percent of individuals earning more than $50,000 described themselves as doing well -- many as doing very well -- as did 77 percent of those who earned just $30,000 to $40,000.
So...few jobs pay a living wage, but most people seem to consider themselves as "doing well." Hm. I don't think this is exactly cause for scepticism about the "living wage" figures -- but it's certainly evidence that there's more here than meets the eye. Perhaps jobs below the "living wage" are more common for people without families to support, or where one partner in a family earns substantially more than the other. Or perhaps people are just reluctant to admit that they're not "doing well," even in an anonymous survey.
One thing is pretty clear, though--as a society, we haven't done a particularly good job of measuring how people are really faring economically. Part of that is lack of attention -- economic statisticians are generally more concerned with aggregate figures for GDP, productivity, and the like, rather than with the situation of real families. But part is just that, well, it's just really hard to decide how to measure true prosperity. Surveys? Fancy economics? Guesswork? Any one approach is bound to have its drawbacks--which means that you probably have to look at the problem a bunch of different ways, though a number of different lenses, to get closer to a useful answer.
Take That? Take Back (e-Waste)!
True to its state motto, dirigo, Maine is leading the nation in electronic waste management. Yesterday a law went into effect that requires TV and computer monitor manufacturers to take responsibility for the proper disposal of their products.
TVs and monitors need to be recycled because they contain toxic lead and mercury. But only a few states have e-waste programs where those who profit from the products also pay the disposal costs. In California, consumers pay a small fee at the time of purchase to help defray the cost of recycling later. In Maryland, manufacturers pay a fixed annual fee into a recycling trust fund.
While these are great starts, I suspect that neither of these programs covers the full costs of disposal. Maine's law is great because it places the full cost where it belongs: on makers and users of the product, instead of on general taxpayers. In this way it also creates powerful incentives (read: market economics) for manufacturers to build products that use less toxic materials in the first place and that are easier to recycle at the end of their life.
Here in Cascadia e-waste producer responsibility is still in the works. British Columbia (pdf) intends to have a program in place by mid 2007. Washington has two bills in the current legislative session. And Oregon (pdf) had a bill in 2005 to charge consumers a fee up front, although the bill died in session. Stay tuned to find out what happens with e-waste recycling in the Northwest.