April 05, 2006
One Mile from Home
The kids have long-since outgrown the thing. But since we decided to experiment in car-less living, we’ve resurrected it to haul groceries, library books, and (recently) a broken vacuum cleaner.
The Burley’s range is only as far as you want to push it. And for my family, that limit seems to be about one mile. Less than a mile is a comfortable walk; more is a burden. (To extend the range, we can fit the Burley to a bicycle—on which, more another day.)
A one-mile perimeter, therefore, defines this car-less family’s pedestrian travel zone—call it our “walkshed.” Fortunately, because we chose to live in a compact community, our walkshed turns out to be well stocked.
We can stroll to scores of shops and services—248 to be precise. I know because I counted. You can, too, in less than 60 seconds. I’ll tell you how in a moment.
Among the establishments in our domain are a bowling alley, a produce stand, a movie theater, and a hardware store, plus public institutions such as our post office, swimming pool, farmers’ market, and skate park (new and very cool!).
We’ve got pairs of independent booksellers, thrift stores (we know them well), and bakeries (ditto). Three pharmacies, three yoga studios, and three video stores offer us medication, meditation, and mesmerization, respectively. Five grocers and six dry cleaners compete for our appetites and our wrinkles. Nine barbers eye our locks. Dozens of specialty shops hawk their curiosities in the range of our Burley: one sells only flags, another only gifts from Norway, a third only old magazines.
True coffee houses number six, only one of them a Starbucks (which, because it's so low, may be the most surprising number in this tally). Restaurants? We’re provisioned with 54! (And there are 151 within two miles: we’ll walk farther for great eating.)
Two neighborhood ice creameries are counteracted by an astonishing 42 dentists (none of them covered by our insurance, sadly). Two local smoke shops are outnumbered by an even more astounding 74 doctors (again, not covered by our insurance). And then there’s our one neighborhood orthodontist: he has straightened or is straightening all three of our kids’ teeth, for which we've paid him enough to buy three used Volvos or most of a new Prius.
I should perhaps note that, despite these large counts, we do not live downtown. Far from it—-in fact, five miles from it. Our neighborhood of Ballard is a typical streetcar community developed largely in the 1920s and replicated in every North American city of similar age.
I should also probably note that our neighborhood is definitely not Mayberry. It's got 44 auto shops, 10 taverns, and a liquor store. Oh, plus two sex-toy shops and two strip clubs. (Or so the signs say -- I’ve never been inside. I swear.)
All of these counts I did in my head or using the yellow pages, and you can do the same for your home if you live in the United States. (4/10 Update: This tool is really only reliable in states where Qwest offers local phone service. Elsewhere, the count is incomplete. Here's a map of their area. Tip of the hat to Joseph W., in comments, for this catch.)
To get a fairly complete count of businesses (in Qwest's 14 states), go to this Qwest online phone directory, select the business listings, type “all” in the category field, click “near a street address,” type in your address, and choose “1 mile.” (Sorry, Canadians, I have yet to find a .ca that performs this trick.) If you’re lucky and the database gods are smiling on you (the site is temperamental), Qwest will promptly reveal how many businesses there are within a one-mile walk of your front door. Call this your Walkshed Index, your Burley Score.
Ours, as I said, is 248. There are two hundred and forty eight places where my family can do business within a mile of home, not counting public facilities. That number is not remarkably high: the walkshed index at my downtown office address is 6,623. Nor is it remarkably low: one suburban family I know has a score of 0. But it means that living car-free is more viable for us than it would be for many families.
What’s the Burley Score where you live?
P.S. More than one quarter of car trips in the United States are shorter than one mile, as we noted in Seven Wonders. One quarter!
P.P.S. Realtors provide detailed information to prospective home buyers on schools and resale values. They could as easily report the Walkshed Index-—high scores translate into thousands of dollars of potential savings in fuel and car payments.
P.P.P.S. According to one map-making friend, creating walkshed maps and yellow pages would be a relatively simple Google Maps “Mash Up.” Anyone know of such a tool? Anyone volunteer to do this project? I’d love to have a detailed map stowed in the “glove box” of our Burley of all 248 businesses in my home zone. (I can get close with the Qwest online directory, plus the cool mapping tools at Map24, Google Local, and Windows Live Local. But these tools are designed for car drivers, not walkers.) Ideally, I would want a walking map or PDA application that shows me the whereabouts of public restrooms, water fountains, bike racks, curb cuts, bus stops, and benches. Besides, the Qwest tool is clunky and imprecise. (My total score of 248 is inexplicably less than the sum of all the categories of establishments listed above!)
UPDATE: A reader points out (in comments) that Canada411.ca will calculate a metric version of the Burley Score. Leave "category" blank, choose 1 or 2 kilometers, enter your address, and you're set. I calculated a 2-kilometer Walkshed Index of almost 7,000 for an address in Vancouver's West End.
March 22, 2006
Seattle's Growing Up
Solid article in the Seattle Times today on the rising building height limits in downtown Seattle.
The article even includes a brief historical note on the 1989 voter-approved height cap following the construction of the super-tall and hideous
Columbia Center Columbia Seafirst Center Bank of America Tower BankAmerica Tower Columbia Tower. Seattle's thinking on downtown density has changed quite a bit since then. Instead of constricting development, most are enthusiastic about new development in the city's core--development that is revivifying once-dormant neighborhoods.
Seattleites have change their minds partly because of the dawning realization that downtown density is good environmental policy. It's a superbly efficient use of land (among many other environmental benefits). Over the last two decades, residents watched sprawl devour the Cascade foothills and lowland farms and realized that the salvation for natural spaces was partly in the city.
The article does include once curious bit:
There's scant evidence, however, that the changes would curb sprawl over the next 20 years by pulling more people downtown. Under current or proposed zoning, city studies project about 10,000 new households downtown and 29,000 new jobs in that period. [Emphasis mine.]
That's a non-trivial number of households and jobs, but it's odd--at the least--that city growth projections are the same with or without the height increase.
What's going on here? Are the projections mistaken? Or is the height zoning change just a matter of aesthetics, not a substantive policy to increase downtown density?
March 06, 2006
Searching for Salmon in the Wrong Places
OK, let’s consider just how absurd this predicament is. People are terrestrial creatures. We like to eat salmon, which spend most of their lives in the ocean. Fortunately, salmon have a habit -- nay, an instinct -- of returning to fresh water to spawn. They do this every year. Used to be, people would wait for them in rivers and estuaries, and catch them there, close to home.
But then -- perhaps to jump the queue and get ahead of the crowd unfurling its nets in rivers and bays -- some fishermen started to troll for salmon in the offshore waters. The salmon still had every intention of swimming into our rivers where they are easier to catch. But instead, trollers began baiting their gear and enticing salmon to take their hooks at sea.
As long as salmon runs are abundant, this impatient practice can be written off as one of those idiosyncrasies of our species, yet another method we have devised to needlessly burn diesel fuel. "Technology is needed not to beat the fish, but to beat other fishermen," wrote Richard Manning in Salmon Nation. "The fish would still come back... if we would wait."
But when certain stocks of salmon start to weaken, this reliance on ocean trolling shows its weakness as well. This week, the Pacific Fishery Management Council is weighing its options in the face of a predicted low run of Klamath River chinook. Biologists estimate that 29,000 salmon would make it to the mouth of the Klamath in the absence of any fishing -- already well below the 35,000 minimum that fisheries managers have set as an annual goal to reach the spawning grounds.
At sea, those scarce Klamath-bound fish mingle with other chinook headed for rivers with more abundant runs -- such as the Sacramento, where runs have rebuilt over the last decade. Regulators fear that trollers would hook Klamath fish among their catch, a chinook that would be indistinguishable on deck from a fish headed for the Sacramento, Eel, or Rogue river.
So the council is entertaining a proposal to nix this year’s salmon fishing season along 700 miles of coastline, from Point Sur, near Monterey, California, north into Oregon. Their dilemma has set off a round of finger-pointing, with trollers blaming water diversions from the Klamath for the salmon’s woes on that river, and hence for the possible closure of the fishery. No doubt, in the long term, the water regime on the Klamath needs to change.
But in the meantime, maybe we should change how we fish. Ocean trolling is inherently indiscriminate. As long as some salmon populations are less robust than others, either some stocks will be overfished or many will go under-caught. Instead, if fishing boats sought salmon at the mouths of the rivers they’re returning to, there’d be a much smaller risk of catching a fish from any other run. In California, commercial fishing inside the Golden Gate, at the mouth of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River, has been illegal since 1957. The present situation might offer a reason to move forward by turning back the clock half a century.
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.
December 09, 2005
Prius, Oil, and Time
Gristmill's ur-pundit David Roberts makes a good point concerning this post, discussing whether buying a Prius or other super-efficient vehicle really reduces climate-warming emissions. What Dave is wrestling with is whether the oil "saved" by driving a Prius is really just bought by someone else -- leading to no net reduction in overall emissions.
A few things to say here. First, as astute commenter Patrick Niemeyer notes, the Prius has other benefits besides using less fuel -- it's also a phenomenally clean car. Driving a Prius reduces your overall emissions of smog-forming compounds, particulate matter, and volatile organics. For cars, cleanliness is, quite obviously, a good thing.
But that doesn't really get to the heart of Dave's point -- which is that super-efficient cars may ultimately be irrelevant if all the oil gets burned sooner or later. I still think that's not quite right. By reducing aggregate demand for transportation fuels in any given year, cars like the Prius offer a couple of clear, tangible benefits to the climate.
Let's say that for every 10 gallons of gas you save by driving a Prius, demand for gasoline from the global transportation system falls by six gallons -- that is, six gallons of gas aren't used in a given year, and are either placed in storage or not pumped out of the ground. Now, of course, that gasoline may be burned next year, or the year after that. But the pace at which carbon is emitted to the atmosphere does matter: the longer the GHGs are in the atmosphere, the more heat they trap. Delaying carbon emissions may reduce the pace of climate forcing, and buy a little time to deal with the consequences.
Which suggests reducing aggregate demand for transportation fuels can slow, however slightly, the pace of climate change. Which is a good thing.
The second benefit stems from this fact: all else being equal, reducing aggregate demand for transportation fuels will reduce the price of oil. And lower prices reduce the incentive to pull more oil out of the ground.
For the "easy oil" -- the stuff that gushes from the ground, or can be coaxed out without too much trouble -- this probably doesn't matter. (If you can produce a barrel of oil for under $10 with current technology, it's a pretty sure bet that it will get used up sooner or later.) But for the hard oil -- stuff that takes a lot of technology, effort, and energy to produce -- price matters a lot. Oil from, say, Alberta's tar sands might be extremely profitable to extract when oil's at $60 per barrel, but a money sink if oil prices fall below $40 per barrel. Producing the really difficult oil is an especially big climate problem, since it often takes a lot of energy (and climate-warming emissions) to do so.
Now, if prices rise and people think they'll stay high, a lot of the relatively hard oil will get produced -- and sooner rather than later. And there's a huge supply of "hard" oil in the world. By reducing demand, you make it less economically feasible to extract the really costly oil -- which reduces, or at least delays, the climate impacts of the transportation system.
Of course, it could be that, super-efficient cars or no, the world's "easy" oil will be used up eventually; and following that, prices will rise, and we'll start extracting the stuff that's harder to get at. And it's even feasible to argue that it's better to face that day of reckoning sooner rather than later -- we'll have to face the music sometime.
Nevertheless, a world of hybrid cars will probably come to that juncture, with all of the world's easy oil already tapped, a little bit later than it otherwise would; and it might--just might--prevent some of the really difficult oil from being produced at all -- especially if renewable energy technologies get more cost- and energy-efficient in the interim.
To me, either result -- slowing the pace of global warming emissions, and/or keeping some hard-to-extract oil in the ground -- would be a boon for the climate. Whether it's a cost-effective way to get to that benefit is a question for another time.
December 05, 2005
PBDEs: Another Nail
Some cheery news for Monday: The Olympian, Washington's capital city newspaper, reports that the state departments of ecology and health are proposing further steps to eliminate PBDEs, a toxic flame retardant, from commerce. And I imagine that some state legislators are paying close attention to those recommendations as they gear up for the legislative session next January.
Just to recap -- PBDEs are flame retardants used in furniture foams and plastics, but have some disturbing similarities to their chemical cousins, the PCBs. Both classes of compounds have been found to affect neurological development in lab animals, and PCBs are known to cause developmental delays and deficits in children. Scientists routinely find PBDEs in samples of food, housedust, and human breastmilk and body fat -- and levels in North America, where the use of the most troublesome forms of the compound has been concentrated, are the highest in the world.
Last year the Washington legislature funded a PBDE action plan for the state, but delayed action on a bill to actually remove compounds out of commerce. Meanwhile, the manufacturer of the kinds of PBDEs most often found in people's bodies has stopped manufacturing the compounds, under an agreement with the US EPA. Still, one type of PBDEs are still used widely in commercial electronics and other applications (though, apparently, many manufacturers have managed to remove all PBDEs from their supply chain).
Today's news means, in essence, that departments of health and ecology are leaning towards a more comprehensive ban of PBDEs. As summarized by the Olympian:
The two agencies recommend that the Legislature:
• Ban the manufacture, distribution or sale of new products containing Penta or Octa [which are the most problematic forms of the compounds].
• Ban the use of Deca [the PBDEs that are still in widespread use] in electronic components, as long as safer fire retardants are available or if additional studies show that Deca harms human health.
• Consider a ban on Deca in products that don’t already contain it, but could in the future, including textiles and mattresses.
• Continue research on PBDE alternatives and monitor the levels of PBDE in the environment.
These are all good steps. Of course, it would have been nice if the same level of caution had been exercised before PBDE contamination became so widespread.
November 30, 2005
Bashing Bus Rapid Transit
The Stranger takes a crack at Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)--an alternative to fixed-rail technologies like light rail and monorail--and finds it wanting. Severely wanting. And while the short article isn't the paragon of balanced issue analysis, it raises some compelling objections. Among them: BRT tends to have lower ridership, longer travel times, and fails to create incentives for land-use changes. There may even be reason to think that BRT's oft-touted cost-effectiveness may be illusory.
The debate between BRT and fixed-rail is extensive and even somewhat acrimonious. Personally, I'm undecided (and, in truth, I'm unacquainted with the quantitative claims of BRT proponents) but I have a hard time believing that BRT is preferable.
Fixed-rail transit is not only good for transportation (where it probably out-competes BRT), but it can also catalyze and focus development strategically, just as streetcars once did. BRT, on the other hand, cannot act as an agent of smart-growth development because it lacks the permanence of a rail stop. To get that permanence, BRT must assume its most extreme form: grade-separated, exclusive right-of-way lanes, with large well-designed stops. But then BRT has sacrificed its main selling points and become expensive and inflexible, just like fixed rail. And it's slower and less attractive to new riders too. So where's the beef?
November 22, 2005
A River Runs Free
A spot of good news from Montana: the Bonner Dam on the Blackfoot River was removed with a minimum of problems. For the first time since at least 1884, that river of literary and cinematic fame is unfettered.
Other dam-removal projects in the Northwest are certainly more ecologically important, but there's something poetically fitting about the Blackfoot running free again. As Norman Maclean explained, "the river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time." And now it does once more.
November 07, 2005
Driving is far and away the biggest source of climate-warming emissions in the Pacific Northwest. Together, motor gasoline and highway diesel account for about 40 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels in BC, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. (In Washington, the figure is 36 percent -- click on the graph for details.) Nothing else we do comes close to matching the amount of CO2 that we emit when we drive.
Which would make one think that reducing emissions from driving is the highest priority for reducing our impact on the global climate. Given the disproportionate amount of CO2 from driving, that sounds reasonable, right?
Only I'm not sure that it's true. In fact, if I had to choose one area of the northwest's energy system to focus on, I'd probably choose the one that is, comparatively speaking, the most climate-friendly: electricity.
Most of the Pacific Northwest's electricity comes from hydropower dams. Now, obviously, the dams that staple the region's streams and rivers have their problems; they're largely responsible for the decline of the region's iconic salmon runs. However, while hydropower isn't always climate friendly, the dams in the northwest are fairly climate-benign, as energy sources go.
But we've pretty much hit the limit on hydropower generation in the Northwest. Annual hydropower generation varies with the weather, but the long-term average has been roughly stagnant for a couple decades. There simply haven't been many new additions to hydropower capacity recently: all of the good sites already have dams on them. So these days, new production comes from other sources; and while a few new wind farms have gotten a lot of press, we've been largely meeting rising demand for electricity by burning more natural gas and coal.
And coal is a real problem. Coal emits more CO2 per unit of usable energy than anything else the nation's energy portfolio. At this stage, anything we can do to keep coal in the ground has got to count as one of the best ways to help stem the rise in atmospheric CO2 levels.
Now, the thing is that there's very little coal-fired electricity in the Pacific Northwest itself; the Centralia power plant in Washington is the only major coal-to-electric plant In the region. But there are quite a few large coal-fired plants Wyoming, Nevada, and Utah -- plants that also power growing demand throughout the US West. Arguably, the most climate-friendly policies we could pursue in the Northwest would...
- help us use electricity more efficiently -- which would reduce the demand for imported coal-fired electricity; and
- help us generate more electricity renewably -- which could help us export more electricity outside the region, offsetting electricity generation from coal-fired plants.
Of course, I think this line of thinking poses something of a dilemma: is it really possible to convince people that the best thing to do for the climate is to use less of the one energy source that -- in this region, anyway -- poses the least threat to the climate?
October 21, 2005
Bowling Together, One Last Time
Today in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a sweetly-sad story about the closing of a bowling alley in north Seattle. There's nothing terribly profound, of course, about one business closing down, but columnist Susan Paynter does a terrific job of characterizing the place as a nexus of social capital, though she doesn't use the term herself. In light of the recent dialogue on this blog about the role of density, gentrification, and community, I thought I'd toss out this article as food for thought.
"You should start the day off with a little bit of laughter," Wayne Luders told me. He and wife Ruth come from home a few blocks away for the friendship, the circle of acquaintances they count on around the tabletop, and down-to-earth servers like Louise Adams who, Wayne admits, sometimes calls him worse names than "Sweetpea."
Like the other regulars -- the serious night-league bowlers with monogrammed bags, the daytime senior señoritas sporting matching shirts, and the every Tuesday and Thursday railroad retiree -- they dread March when they'll loose their moorings.
That the business closing is actually a bowling alley, gives a certain literal heft to the worry that social capital is declining, a worry that is most commonly connected to Robert Putnam's book Bowling Alone. But more to the point, Leilani Lanes is not closing because business is slow (though it's worth noting that league bowling there has declined sharply, as it has almost everywhere). No, the alley is closing in part because real estate values have gotten so high that it's hard for the owners to justify the building's current use.
There's much more money in re-developing the alley into apartments, condos, retail outlets, or more profitable businesses. It strikes me that the closing of this alley--like the passing of many timeworn elements in any city--should not just be shrugged off as a matter of amoral invincible "market forces." It's truly regrettable when places of close community pass away, but it's a problem that's damnably hard to fix.
I'm certainly not a no-growther. I believe, for instance, that much of the new development in Seattle over the last two decades has made the city healthier and better in a thousand and one ways. A profusion of new commercial districts, walkable neighborhoods, and even farmer's markets is breathing a great deal of life into the city. But at the same time, there's something lamentable about the loss of "great good places" like the bowling alley--places where the community has gathered for years--places that forge the bonds that keep cities vibrant and may even keep people healthier too.
Waldal worries it will be the end of social contact for many. That they will sit, immobile and isolated by their separate TV screens.
Longtime bowling-league secretary Mary Pelan, a self-described senior citizen, started bowling at age 17. She guesses she'll walk for exercise -- probably alone -- when the place shuts its doors. "So many connections will be shredded and that's just a shame," she said.
But what to do? In the face of a growing population and the practical need for increasing density (not to mention the environmental and social needs), how do we preserve the "great good places" that make the places where we live worth living in?