March 31, 2006
Surface With A Smile?
I wouldn't call it momentum, exactly, but there seems to have been a bit of movement on the idea of replacing Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct with a surface boulevard -- a modestly-priced alternative to an aerial rebuild or tunnel. Now, just to be clear, I'm still not convinced that this is an ideal solution. Transportation is complicated, and while other US cities that have removed downtown highways (San Francisco, Milwaukee, and Portland) have never suffered the gridlock that skeptics predicted, the unique layout of Seattle's traffic corridors, industrial areas, and job centers might mean that losing the Viaduct's capacity would create nightmare rush hours for people working (and living) downtown.
Except there's this: the current plans for the tunnel and aerial rebuild already assume that the city can make do without the Viaduct for three to four years. That's how long it will take between the moment the existing structure is closed for demolition, and the new one is open for traffic.
Now, I've heard plenty of people argue that traffic will come to a standstill if the Viaduct is replaced by a surface boulevard. But I've never heard anyone from the city or state admit that their prefered options will do the exact same thing, for at least three years.
So either: a) transportation officials aren't being up-front about this -- and the replacement options have a hidden downside that nobody's talking about publicly; or b) they don't think it's really all that much of a problem, and that they'll cobble together some combination of transit incentives and surface street improvements that will keep traffic flowing. And if it's the latter, then, goodness gracious, if it can work for 3 years, then why not 10, or 20, or longer?
More to the point, it seems to me that there's pretty good reason to believe that downtown traffic won't have to come to a halt if the Viaduct is closed.
The official figures say that the Viaduct carries 105,000 trips per day. But during much of the day the Viaduct is lightly travelled, and there's usually extra capacity on surface streets and I-5.
The real problems might come during rush hour, when just about every traffic conduit in downtown is full. But in reality, not that much traffic actually travels on the Viaduct during rush hour. With only 2 lanes, the Battery Street Tunnel carries at most 10,000 vehicles into downtown during a typical morning rush hour, and 10,000 northwards at the end of the day. (This is assuming 2.5 hours of rush hour, and a generous 2,000 cars per lane per hour.) So that means -- from the North anyway -- that the transportation system needs to deal with about 10,000 round trips that would no longer be able to go on the Viaduct. (I haven't thought things through, but I bet it's a similar number of round trips from the south.)
That's still a lot of trips, but it seems a lot more manageable than the official figure of 105,000. And there are lots of options to keep people moving. A new boulevard could handle some of the car and truck trips. Sound Transit may take some pressure off I-5 and other surface streets once it opens. Improved bus service -- more buses combined with priority timing for buses at traffic lights -- could carry many of the commuters. Tweaks to the street grid could help keep traffic flowing a bit better. Some people will simply opt to take their trips at different times of the day, or even forego them. (Even during rush hour, only a minority of trips are direct trips from work to home.)
Those are just the conventional options. One unconventional solution--or unconventional in the US at any rate--would be to try what Stockholm and London have already done: charged drivers to enter downtown. Both congestion pricing schemes have been more more successful than critics might have predicted: congestion has gone down enough that many commuters believe the tradeoff is worth it.
But the thing to remember is this: unless the city decides to leave the Viaduct as it is (or to retrofit it as some have suggested) this isn't really an optional exercise. The city is going to have to do some combination of these things, and people are going to have to adjust.
The only question, then, is whether the residents of greater Seattle should spend a few extra billion dollars to fix a problem they've already solved.
Build An Ark
A fascinating (and alarming) new way to
procrastinate at work understand the effects of climate change: Flood Maps.
Using elevation data in combination with Google's map technology, you can create a visual depiction of rising sea levels right in your own neighborhood. Start at 7 meters and work your way up to 14. Truly, it's amazing. The satellite "photo" at left is what downtown Seattle would look like with a 7 meter rise in sea levels: adieu Georgetown, Harbor Island, Interbay, and SoDo. I copped this one from Alex over at WorldChanging.
Also at WorldChanging, Jamais Cascio has a good post on Flood Maps and the science of rising sea levels.
March 30, 2006
Job Satisfaction vs. Cold Hard Cash
How much of a pay cut would you be willing to accept to take a more satisfying job?
Via Kevin Drum, I see that UBC professors John Helliwell and Haifang Huang have tried to put a number on how much different kinds of job satisfaction are worth in cold, hard cash. The results (cribbed from this summary at MSNBC):
- Increased trust in your employer is worth a 36 percent pay raise.
- A greater variety of projects is worth a 21 percent pay hike.
- Having a position that requires skill worth 19 percent more pay.
- Having enough time to finish your work is worth 11 percent more pay.
Based on this, then, you'd be happier overall taking a 20 percent pay cut to work at a place where you trust your employers more; but you're better off in sticking with a somewhat harried job than taking that same pay cut to work at a more measured pace. Of course, this somewhat contradicts this earlier post on a study that found, among other things, that working on a job where there's pressure to work quickly is just about the least satisfying thing you can do with your time.
It's also worth noting that increased pay doesn't do all that much for your happiness: a pay raise of $100,000 only begins to approach the wellbeing people typically derive from a stable marriage. This suggests that a slightly slower pace of work probably only does a little bit for your wellbeing. Still, every little bit helps.
March 29, 2006
Lipstick on a Pig?
The President famously said in his State of the Union address that the United States is "addicted to oil." We couldn't agree more. Today, his administration issued its treatment plan: abuse oil a tiny bit more slowly, eventually, as the New York Times reports.
The "treatment plan" I'm refering to is the US Department of Transportation's new CAFE standards for light trucks. The department heralded the new standards as the largest boost in efficiency in decades, which is true -- because the standards have been stagnant for decades.
So an 11 percent increase over the next five years, is something. It's more than lipstick on a pig.
But how much more?
The plan covers somewhat larger SUVs than before, which is good, but it still excludes the largest SUVs, such as the Hummer H1. It bases the fuel-economy standard on vehicles' footprint, which is also good. But the plan ignores new technologies sweeping the market that make an 11 percent increase an extremely low bar. Light trucks might well improve by more than that anyway, thanks to high fuel prices and the popularity of hybrid-electric drives.
In a time of soaring oil prices, national insecurity by the barrel, worsening hurricanes and other signs of climate change, I had hoped for better.
The new standards are certainly more than lipstick on a pig. They're lipstick and an evening gown.
(A real treatment plan starts with feebates.)
Car-less in Seattle
Six weeks ago, my 18-year-old son slammed our 19-year-old Volvo stationwagon into the rear of a high-clearance pickup. All the people were fine. So was the pickup.
But the Volvo wasn't, as you can see in this photo. Repairing It would have cost many times the Blue Book value. So we accepted the insurance company's check for $594 and bid farewell to the family car.
Happenstance thus made us car free. But we decided to stay that way . . . at least for a little while. OK, actually, it's more of an experiment, to see whether a middle-class family of five can live a contented life in Cascadia's largest city without owning their own car.
Why are we doing this? Cost, conscience, and capability.
Cost: Owning a car is expensive. Replacing our car with another old Volvo would cost us, well, several thousand dollars up front plus at least $400 a month in fuel, taxes, insurance, and depreciation. Buying a new Prius would cost about $650 a month, including the same things (and more than $1,000 a month during the first year!). (There's an automatic cost calculator at Edmunds.com, a manual one at Seattle's One Less Car Challenge, and a guidebook about car costs--if you want to understand the data--at Todd Litman's invaluable website for Victoria Transport Policy Institute.)
Conscience: As Al Gore said the other day, climate change is not a political issue. It's a moral issue. If I won't give car-less living a try, who will? (And I've ratified Kyoto in my own life, so I was looking for ways to further trim emissions.)
Capability--in other words, because we can. Thanks to past choices plus some good fortune, car-free living is a smaller disruption for us than for most people. Our kids are old enough (the youngest is now 11) to walk or bike unaccompanied to a lot of places. We live in a compact city neighborhood with an abundance of nearby amenities. We've got respectable local transit service and five FlexCars stationed within a mile of our home.
We're only six weeks into this new lifestyle, so I don't want to make too many conclusions. But so far, what's surprised me haven't been the moments of inconvenience (I expected those). It's been two unexpected pleasures: more little adventures every week and fewer backseat arguments to referee.
We're walking more, biking more, planning our activities more thoughtfully, and appreciating the FlexCar when we use it. My 12-year-old daughter said to me the other day, laughing at herself as she said it, "I'm noticing that cars go fast, really, really fast."
It's all very new, so this feeling may dissipate with familiarity. But so far, the biggest bonus of car-free living has been an added increment of mindfulness. Who'd have thought that wrecking the family car would be good for our souls?
There's much more to say about this experiment, but I'll save it for another installment. In the meanwhile, I know there are lots of car-free readers of this blog. I'd welcome your advice, especially if you've got kids.
Last Stop in the Free Ride Zone
The market for electronics just got a little fairer. Starting January 2009, my fellow Washington residents will no longer be unfairly punished for my penchant for electoxics (you know – toxic electronics – like it?). That’s because the Washington State legislature just passed the most advanced producer responsibility law in the United States - ESSB 6428 – the Electronic Waste Recycling bill.
The bill basically says, “You can make and sell toxic electronic products, and you can buy them, but Washington's taxpayers are no longer going to foot the bill for cleaning up your mess.” Put more diplomatically, it establishes a “shared responsibility” model, where those who enjoy the benefits of the transaction (the producer and buyer) are those who pay for its negative impacts. Or, as dad used to say, “You gotta pay to play.” Or mom, more to the point, "Go clean your room."
This is how the Washington program will work:
- In every county in the state, consumers (including residents, schools, charities, small businesses and small governments) can drop off their old monitors, computers and TVs at convenient no-charge collection centers, including retailers, non-profits, and local waste facilities. Retailers will be required to let buyers of new equipment know about the recycling centers, and the Department of Ecology will maintain an informational website.
- Manufacturers can either finance and set up an independent program, or participate in a standard program if they don’t want to set up their own. Regardless, each manufacturer will have to pay their “fair share” of the overall costs of the program based on their share of the products being brought to the collection facilities.
- The Department of Ecology will establish the processing standards that manufacturers must meet, and provide general oversight and enforcement.
Washington’s law is a great example of a policy solution that gets prices to tell the truth (at least to stop lying through their teeth, anyway), and it gives manufacturers ample incentive to design products that put safety first, causing fewer problems down the road.
Imagine you’re a manufacturer of a super cool electoxic. There are lots of things that determine how you design your product – features consumers want, how it looks on the shelf, what price point you’re trying to hit, what will get CNET reviewers raving, cost of materials, etc. But what it costs to dispose of your product at the end of its "useful" life (which is less than 5 years for a typical electronic product) has never entered your equation. Nor has the cost of the myriad health impacts your product contributes to.
Now imagine that you’re actually responsible for collecting and figuring out what to do with your toxic components. Not only do you have to collect, but you have to disassemble the products to extract the toxic stuff, and pay for the safe disposal of every pound of toxic. Talk about a great incentive to innovate!
Now this law is by no means perfect, and there's still a lot to work out between now and 2009. But what I especially like about this approach is that it provides at least some pressure on both sides of the P&L for manufacturers. On the revenue side, demand for toxic products will drop because consumers won’t want to pay higher prices as the costs of recycling get passed on to them by the manufacturer. (Even better would be if buyers knew what share of the purchase price was going to pay for disposal of the toxics within. I can dream, right?) On the expense side, manufacturers will start to figure out ways to reduce their recycling and disposal costs, namely designing products that are easy to recycle and use fewer toxic components. And, because the manufacturers will be involved in the creation and management of the program, the feedback loop to the product design process will be much quicker than if they just had to pay an annual polluter fee like some other programs.
E-waste legislation is the hottest sector of the nascent “extended producer responsibility” policy category. According to Washington Environmental Council, 19 other states plus New York City currently have electronic waste bills pending. If you’re interested in learning more about EPR, check out the Product Policy Institute.
And please, can anyone think of a better name for “extended producer responsibility?” I love this stuff, but that name makes even my eyes glaze over.
March 28, 2006
Alan (Heart) This Report
A year ago, Seattle Mayor Gregg Nickels assembled a “Green Ribbon Commission” to advise him on how to keep his trend-setting Kyoto pledge.
Last week, the commission released its report.
The global significance and political symbolism of the event have drawn much well-earned comment. The report itself has not.
How is it? Superb. I’m in love.
It’s well researched, innovative, and (mostly) courageous.
(Full disclosure: the commission is also full of friends and even funders of Northwest Environment Watch. Click through the break, and you'll see I’m not just sucking up.)
It recommends many of the policy solutions that we've become convinced are smart and systemic. A sampling of the 18 highly praiseworthy recommendations:
Lead a regional partnership to develop and implement a road pricing system (about which we’ve written much). Road pricing is the only way to solve congestion, and it’s a potent stimulant for alternatives to driving.
Implement a commercial parking tax (ditto). Taxing parking is a great way to pay for alternatives.
What’s left to say? I’ll stifle a long list of wonkish addenda that I scribbled in the margins (ideas for refrigerator bounties and lightbulb brigades), and limit myself to three things: a curiosity, an observation, and a regret.
My curiosity: The report mentions that 25 percent of Portland’s arterial streets have striped bike lanes, while only 1.5 percent of Seattle’s do. Could those numbers be right?! Wow.
My observation: The report calls for a regional road pricing system – right on! When reading Clark’s post about Stockholm, it occurred to me that the ideal opportunity for a downtown (London-style) tolling anywhere in Cascadia would be when the Alaskan Way Viaduct is torn down. Whatever it’s ultimately replaced with, construction will take years. And during that period, local leaders will have an unusual degree of political cover to implement ambitious steps such as congestion pricing.
My regret: In a report that’s courageous enough to suggest parking taxes and regionwide tolls, it’s disappointing to see the veil of politeness descend in one case that’s critically important—the case of highways reconstruction.
Early in the report, the commissioners plead for a measly $57-73 million a year extra to fund transit improvements that they call “the keystone for other actions.” Then, on page 21, buried in a discussion of “leveraging state and regional action” the Green Ribboners finally refer to the elephants in the living room—the huge highway rebuilding projects planned for the city:
"For example, decisions on major transportation infrastructure improvements, such as the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the two Lake Washington bridges, must closely consider the climate impacts of investment alternatives."
That statement is true, of course, but it’s awfully mild. It’s a bit like a report on global disarmament only mentioning thermonuclear weapons in a footnote. Here’s what I (the impolitic dreamer) wish the commissioners had said,
"The mere fact that city leaders are seriously considering rebuilding multibillion dollar freeways through our city—while the ice sheets are melting, our snowpack is dwindling, our transit system is starved, our bike lanes are few and glass-strewn, and a quarter of our streets lack even sidewalks—is proof that we still have terribly far to go. Freeways are giant emissions generators. They’re the antithesis of climate leadership. We should never build another one in this or any other city. We should begin to tear them down."
Well, anyway, I’m still in love with this report.
March 24, 2006
Stockholm Syndrome II
I while back I mentioned that Stockholm, Sweden was starting a short-term trial of congestion pricing -- essentially, making drivers pay to enter downtown. London instituted a similar system in 2003, which has proven unexpectedly popular: it's reduced traffic levels by 15 percent, while boosting downtown driving speeds considerably. Stockholm's experiment seemed like it was off to a rockier start -- the city was far less congested than London, and the charges were, if anything, even less popular with commuters.
So it may come as something of a surprise that Stockholm's trial has been greeted with less opposition than predicted:
On the first day the overall number of cars travelling to and from the city centre was down by 25%... Many of Sweden’s most skeptical media suddenly changed their view. Those who were expecting chaos suddenly found themselves reporting on the success of the charge, with one tabloid even running the headline “City reclaimed!”
There's no guarantee that voters will choose to continue the experiment. But the early success should be food for thought for any city looking to reduce congestion without expanding road space.
The Gore-y Details
Yesterday I was lucky enough to see Al Gore's presentation on climate change. A remarkably thorough-going look at the consquences, Gore somehow managed to be simultaneously panic-inducing and inspiring. Not only was his slideshow easily the best slideshow I've ever seen on this, or any other, subject, but Gore himself was a study in mastery--at once funny and earnest, erudite and thundering. (Where was this guy during the 2000 campaign?) If you ever have a chance to see him speak on global warming, drop what you're doing and run, don't walk.
Trying to recap his talk in a blog post would be an exercise in futility. You know the drill by now anyway: collapsing ice sheets, shrinking glaciers, spreading diseases, hurricanes, and floods. The punishment that climate change promises to inflict is downright biblical in scale--a punishment that will fall especially hard on the poorest and weakest on earth. And so it was good to hear Gore's booming declaration that arresting climate change is not a political issue, but a basic moral one.
Gore was here in Seattle, you may know, because of mayor Greg Nickels' pledge to bring Seattle into compliance with Kyoto--a pledge that 218 other cities have joined. Today marked the release of the city's Green Ribbon Commission report that details how Seattle will get there. Media coverage here and here.
I'll wrap up with a quote that Gore included as a spur to decisionmakers today. This is Winston Churchill as the gathering forces of facism were darkening Europe:
"The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to a close. In its place, we are entering a period of consequences.”
Update 3/24/06, 2pm: An alert reader informs me that Lawrence, Kansas joined Seattle's Kyoto pledge today, bringing the total number of cities to 219. (Incidentally, nearly 44 million Americans live in cities that have pledged to meet Kyoto's standards.)
Does Pollution Vanish in Sunshine?
Here's a bit of good news: I was trolling through EPA's Toxics Release Inventory for some data on pollution trends, and came across this for King County, Washington, the home county of Seattle.
The upshot: since reporting requirements began in 1988, toxic air emissions from major facilities in King County have fallen by almost 90 percent.
Mind you, this isn't the complete story. Not all facilities that pollute have to file reports with the EPA. Also, not all chemicals are covered in this graph -- some compounds have been added since 1988, and some potentially hazardous compounds aren't covered by reporting requirements. Plus, this doesn't cover emissions from cars, trucks, or other mobile sources.
And the King County's pollution decline may be less impressive than it seems at first blush. Some of the decline may have been the result of "outsourcing" pollution to other parts of the state, or other parts of the world. And perhaps most importantly, this line represents the total volume of pollution, not its total toxicity. The toxicity might have fallen more slowly (or quickly, for that matter) than the volume -- but that's much harder to figure out.
Still, despite all those caveats, it's a pretty impressive feat, no? Fifteen years of "sunshine" -- in which major facilities are required to face public scrutiny for how much they pollute -- and they manage to cut the annual volume of pollution to a tenth of its former level, even as the county's population and economy grew rapidly. This gives me hope, and some confidence that even further reductions in pollution are possible, if not inevitable. As the song goes: "Please don't take my sunshine away."