October 13, 2005
Is Seattle the New Singapore?
That's what mossback Knute Berger argues in his latest Seattle Weekly column.
As near as I can decipher his rantings, Berger thinks that density and gentrification in Seattle are tantamount to becoming a police state in the model of Singapore. Also, houses in the city are unaffordable. And, oh yeah, the University Village is--gasp--basically just a tony shopping mall.
Really, it's hard to know where to begin.
According to Berger, increasing Seattle's density is functionally equivalent to gentrification, which in turn implies Singapore-style law and order:
Proponents argue that the [neo-Victorian] laws work, the streets are safe, and that such rules are necessary for dealing with high urban density. As Seattle floats atop a real-estate bubble that increasingly makes the city affordable mostly to the affluent, we can probably look forward to more laws intended to make the whole town more like Singapore (recycle or else!). That is part of the price of urban gentrification, the signs of which are everywhere.
It's precisely these sorts of hysterics that make it hard for me to take anti-density arguments seriously.
Leaving aside the notion that gentrification may actually be a good thing for a city, it's not at all clear why increasing density would imply gentrification or Singapore-style law and order. It doesn't in, say, Vancouver or San Francisco.
Affordable housing is, I think, a legitimate concern. (Incidentally, that's why Berger's repeated lionization of the suburban Eastside in this column is so puzzling. Housing prices there are higher than in the city, so Berger's affordable housing spleen should presumably be vented there.)
I'll hazard one guess why Seattle's prices are a little lower: density. It's easy to bemoan the high prices in once anemic neighborhoods like Madrona and Mount Baker, but it seems to me that the best remedy for high demand and high prices is, well, more supply. The only (slim) hope of keeping Seattle's single-family neighborhoods even moderately affordable is to create an array of other housing choices.
I could go on and on about this week's column. Speaking as a mossback myself (though younger than Berger), I too often miss the "old Seattle," a quiet and unpretentious place with a character all its own. But time does not stop and cities are by nature dynamic. I wish Berger would quit gnashing his teeth and start using his column more constructively--perhaps finding ways to preserve the best features of the old place while we're trying to build something even better.
(Okay, okay, one last jab: Berger's flippant Singapore-bashing is awfully ill-informed. While Singapore is not a good model for liberal Western democracies, it's impossible to understand the place without reference to its geopolitical context and history. That is to say, it's a damn sight better than anything else in southeast Asia. Oppression comes in many guises and Singapore has managed to avoid the oppressive evils of poverty, race-riots, and Islamic fundamentalism that are even now wracking its nearest neighbors. The price of Singapore's freedom is government by a rather benign one-party psuedo-democracy that has built a prosperous and peaceful nation on the foundations of education, multiculturalism, and free trade. That and Singaporeans are denied their inalienable rights to litter and vandalize. The horror.)
October 10, 2005
They've Got A Bridge To Sell You
Noted in passing, a Seattle Times article with a mildly galling headline: Rebuild or replace the viaduct? So, what then, are those the only two options on the table? Obviously, no. But it's hard to know that from the Times' coverage.
The article highlights the musings of a retired structural engineer and I-912 supporter who claims that the Viaduct could be patched up for the low, low cost of $200 to $300 million (perhaps using Viaduct tape), as opposed to a minimum of $2.5 billion for a whole new structure. His reasoning: only one section of the Viaduct needs to be replaced. "We think the rest is simply OK." (One hopes that "I think it's ok" doesn't become the default health and safety standard for highway projects.)
Meanwhile, engineers who've actually...you know...studied the issue say that this is bunk, and the whole thing could come down in a big quake. Repairing the Viaduct to meet reasonable safety standards is nearly as expensive as building a whole new one, and would extend the structure's working life by only a few decades -- which makes the high cost hard to justify.
Now, I don't personally know whether this retired engineer guy is onto something, or just a crank. I suspect the latter. But, quite clearly, the Times thought that the thoughts of a rogue engineer (I didn't know there was such a thing) were worth front-page coverage. So when do they start covering the rest of the debate -- including the people who think that replacing the Viaduct's capacity is still too expensive at $2.5 billion, let alone $4 billion for a tunnel?
Update: It's a good idea to read the comments here -- seems like I was pretty unfair to suggest that the retired engineer, Neil Twelker, might be a crank. Apparently, he's quite a renowned figure, and an exceptionally well qualified engineer.
And, just to be clear, I intended the title "They've got a bridge to sell you" to refer to the Times' coverage -- which seemed to assume that the two poles of the Viaduct debate were "repair" or "rebuild" -- and not to the engineers themselves. Sorry if that seemed like a swipe at the engineers.
September 23, 2005
Monorail Stopped In Its Tracks
Well, so much for that transit project.
I just finished listening to the Seattle City Council unanimously approve a resolution to deny the monorail permits for building and right-of-way. They also agreed to do everything possible to get the state legislature to dissolve the monorail project. Basically, the council is concurring with Mayor Nickels, who demanded that the monorail return to voters with an improved plan. The monorail board refused and the city pulled the plug. Absent city permitting approval, the monorail's already troubled bonds will become anathema to investors, thereby essentially killing the project.
So barring something completely unforeseen, the monorail is effectively dead. But while the corpse is still warm, Seattle needs to conduct a thorough post-mortem.
Around the office here, I
am was known as something of a rabid monorail proponent. Obviously, I was aghast at the ridiculously flawed financing scheme this summer that put the monorail on a collision course with the mayor and council. Still, I remained hopeful that the monorail board would revise their plan and come up with something credible, even if it was for a less extensive line.
One thing I'd like to see investigated--apart from the chicanery or incompetence of the monorail board--was the unreasonable hostility to the monorail that emanated from city hall and other city leaders. Despite consistently strong support from voters, the monorail made little headway with many decisionmakers, some of whom seemed predisposed to hate the thing at every step along the way. I wonder if that hostility didn't help create a culture of defensiveness and secrecy in the monorail project that ultimately led to its undoing.
City officials probably did the right thing today in the face of a recalcitrant monorail board. But I'd argue that the blame for the project's failure lies partly with city hall, as well as other institutions like the Downtown Business Association. I'd like to see some soul-searching from our leaders about the fractious and close-minded civic culture that stifled the monorail.
We should, of course, continue to debate the merits of transit alternatives. What is cost effective? What is efficient? What is politically possible? And what do ordinary residents--as opposed to engineers and billionaires--actually want to see in our fair city?
More importantly, we need to acknowledge a basic truth: there will never be a perfect transit system (or road project, for that matter). If we agree that we need better transit in the Emerald City, we should stop hunting for perfection and start looking for something practical. And we should do it with a quickness.
September 20, 2005
Is Gas Elastic?
In 1999 you could buy a gallon of gas in Washington state for less than a buck. As recently as 3 years ago, gas prices averaged about $1.20 a gallon. Right now, though, expect to shell out about $2.85.
So what has a 136% price hike done to gasoline consumption? As it turns out, not a lot. In 2002, the average Washington resident went through about 8.4 gallons of gas per week. Based on data through July 2005, that's now down to about 8.1 gallons per week -- a 4 percent reduction.
Elastic? Not so much.
Of course, the trends are a bit confusing. The state economy was in the doldrums in 2002, but has picked up a bit of steam since; if economic conditions had remained constant, the decline in gas consumption might have been a little steeper.
Over the longer term, the trends are a little more promising. Person for person, gas consumption peaked in 1978, at 9.7 gallons per person per week. We're down 17% from then. (Which convinces me that federal CAFE standards--while far from perfect--really did accomplish something useful.)
Remember, though, these are per capita trends. Population growth has worked at cross purposes to improved fuel efficiency: all told, Washington state is on track to use the same total amount of gasoline this year as it did in 2002, and possibly a bit more.
September 12, 2005
San Francisco, Here We Come?
As Joel Connelly points out in today's P-I, there's no guarantee that I-912 -- the Washington State initiative that would roll back the most recent hike in state gas taxes -- will pass. That said, repeal of the gas tax looks pretty likely, in no small part because of the surprisingly tepid response from the state's business community, which had previously been outspoken in its support for higher gas taxes and transportation spending.
Come November, if the new gas taxes are repealed, the $2 billion in state money currently slated for Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct will simply evaporate. And as Mayor Nickels has pointed out, without that money there's essentially no chance that the Viaduct will be rebuilt:
If Seattle doesn't get the $2 billion approved by the Washington Legislature to help replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the city will tear down the deteriorating elevated highway anyway because it is unsafe, said Mayor Greg Nickels.
So it's perhaps a good time to point out what just happened in San Francisco: the city just opened a new 6-lane boulevard that -- get this -- replaced an elevated urban highway. This is the second time the city has replaced an elevated freeway with a boulevard. The first was the waterfront Embarcadero Freeway, which was torn down after it was damaged by the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. The city put up a waterfront boulevard in place of the highway -- a move that, according to most observers, revitalized a waterfront formerly depressed by the blight of a freeway. And city residents liked the results enough that they decided to do the same thing to a stretch of the Central Freeway smack in the middle of downtown.
Obviously, the Alaskan Way Viaduct plays a different role in Seattle's transportation system than the Embarcadero and Central freeways did in San Francisco's. But that city's highway removals do serve as important reminders that, no, a big-city's transportation system doesn't necessarily grind to a halt when you put the budget for downtown highways on a strict diet.
September 06, 2005
The US federal poverty line is not a good measure of real life poverty. Most researchers agree that the standard method of computing poverty is outdated, overly simplistic, and probably drastically undercounts the number of poor. (Here's a quick summary from Dan Staley; here's the longer version of the same story.) Still, despite its glaring flaws, the poverty rate remains the most widely reported gauge of how many poor people there are.
Enter a new report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). The report develops a more meaningful poverty rate--they call it a "basic family budget." EPI adjusts for geographic differences in prices--a huge oversight in the federal poverty calcuations--and makes realistic but frugal cost estimates for housing, food, transportation, child care, health care, other necessities, and taxes. Based on these costs, EPI calculates how much money families need to earn just to get by (assuming they don't save money, go on vacation, or even have renter's insurance).
You can play with EPI's handy calculator to get a sense of what their basic family budget is like. A family of 2 parents and 2 children in the Seattle metro area, for instance, needs to earn $45,516 to make ends meet. On the other hand, a family of 1 parent and 1 child in rural Idaho needs just $26,988 per year.
EPI's report gives an entirely different sense of poverty--and not just because the numbers are much, much higher.
According to the Census Bureau, for example, Idaho has the lowest poverty in the three Northwest states (WA, OR, ID), with just 9.9 percent. But EPI's more detailed and accurate assessment of economic conditions, makes Idaho by far the worst with fully 37.5 percent of people living in families without enough money for a basic budget.
So not only is Idaho's "true" poverty situation 3 to 4 times worse than federal estimate suggests, it's skewed with relation to its nearest neighbors. What's the explanation here? Does Idaho have a smaller share of very poor people (below the federal poverty line), but a larger share of people who can't really make ends meet? Or is there something else going on?
Whatever the explanation, I find the comparison troubling, partly because poverty rates are often used to allocate scarce resources.
Washington, on the other hand, has an undistinguished poverty rate for the Northwest, but boasts the smallest share of people unable to earn a basic family budget (see table below). Could this have something to do with Washington's most-generous-in-the-nation minimum wage?
Here's a fuller account of federal poverty rates compared to basic family budgets in the Northwest.
Federal poverty rate, 2004
Federal poverty rate, 2004
Percent below basic family budget
Percent below basic family budget
August 01, 2005
For many northwesterners, summer means an all-too-brief window to capitalize on the region's natural heritage. For a few months city-dwellers like myself become schizophrenics--living in an apartment during the week and waking up in a sleeping bag on the weekends. Northwesterners have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to trails and wilderness within a short drive of our cities. In the wild country of the Northwest's mountains, it is still possible to find solitude on high country trails, in alpine lake basins that look like Shangri La, and in ancient dark forests.
But our ability to experience those places is facing a very real threat because many of the best trails to those refuges are going extinct. In some cases, the loss of trails is an especially bitter pill to swallow because there is comparatively ample funding for the roads that lead to those vanishing trails.
In the US Northwest, the vast majority of our precious natural beauty is not managed by northwesterners, but by two federal agencies, the US Forest Service, which operates national forests, and the National Park Service. Both agencies are badly under-funded and short-handed.
In fact,the Forest Service is already beginning to sell off assets. Many national forests lack the resources necessary even to maintain their crumbling infrastructures of campgrounds, forest roads, boat launches, and trails. National forests are increasingly dependent on volunteers and private funding to make up for the severe shortfall of federal dollars.
Here's a case study that hits very close to home for an estimated 5 million northwesterners: the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest--the huge swath of federal land that blankets the west side of the Cascade Mountains from the Canadian border to Mount Rainier National Park. Right now, the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie's website says:
While it appears that repairs to roads are largely funded and most will eventually be made, the same can not yet be said for the trail system.
In October 2003, an autumn deluge of unheard of proportions swept away large chunks of well-known routes like the Pacific Crest Trail, the Stehekin Valley trails, and many others. In fact, the flood did about $4.5 million in damage just to trails in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, not counting additional havoc in Olympic and North Cascades National Parks. (For more on this, read my article that appeared in the Seattle Weekly in May 2004 linking the trail damage to climate change.)
Even now, in 2005, the National Forest has only about one-tenth of the necessary funding to make the repairs. Groups like Washington Trails Association and The Mountaineers have made heroic efforts to help the National Forest win funding and have volunteered countless hours to help repair the damage. But the fundamental problem is too great to be overcome by volunteers: the forest simply needs more money for trails and the federal government isn't about to supply anywhere near the money required.
But there is plenty of money available for repairing the many forest roads that were damaged by the October floods. (The floods did a number on the roads too, most notoriously the popular Mountain Loop Highway that no longer makes a loop because of washouts near Barlow Pass. Still, road repair is pretty much a sure thing.) The Federal Highway Administration operates a program called the Emergency Relief for Federally Owned Roads (ERFO, for short) and the National Forest was able to qualify for ERFO funding to repair most of the flood damage.
The problem, of course, is that hikers and other recreationists may be left with roads that lead to trailheads, but no actual trails. This is not just a bizarre hypothetical. The White Chuck River Road is slated for repairs soon, but to my knowledge there are not enough resources to repair the White Chuck Trail that leads to Kennedy Hot Springs, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the shortest route of the several long routes up Glacier Peak, a popular mountaineering destination.
Don't blame local Forest Service officials--they're making the best of incredibly scarce resources. Instead, you can blame federal funding scarcity--and restrictions on existing funding--that hamstrings forests like the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie.
Without trails, recreation in national forests becomes based on either internal combustion or on the strength, skill, and time to navigate large stretches of difficult trail-less country. The latter is a more authentic wilderness experience, I suppose, but certainly not something the whole family can enjoy.
One possible solution is to convert some of the roads, or portions of them, to trails. Olympic National Forest has experimented with this solution with the damaged Dossewallips River Road that once led to trails to Lake Constance and Mount Constance, near Hood Canal. It's controversial to say the least. One the up side: the forest gains a few additional miles of trail and the area's natural resources are arguably better preserved. On the downside: some of the best destinations in the forest are put out of reach of day hikers and families. (The same thing effectively happened years ago on the gated road to Monte Cristo that is now mainly the province of mountain bikes and hiking boots.)
Settling on the right mix of access roads, good trails, and deep (trail-less) wilderness is not easy. In any mix, however, it's galling to find that there is ample funding for cars, but very little for feet.
There ought to be a large natural constituency for the trails of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie. The forest is located within a 70-mile drive of over 3.6 million Washingtonians (and also nearby to 1.5 million British Columbians). No surprise, it's one of the most heavily visited national forests in the country and in recent years it has also become one of the most devoted to trail-based recreation.
It's something of a truism to urge people to contact their representatives in Congress, but that really is one of the best things you can do for trails in the Northwest. Congress controls the purse strings and has the power to fund trail restoration and maintenance. And then when you've done that, hook up with Washington Trails Association or the Mountaineers--they are vocal advocates for muscle-powered recreation on federal land and. They also put their muscles where their mouths are, donating thousands of hours of work to help repair trails.
The Mount Baker-Snoqualmie is a national gem. Just a short drive from downtown skyscrapers you can find your way into more than 1.3 million acres of designated wilderness and even today find plenty of places to be alone with jaw-dropping scenery. If we can't find money to protect our nearest and dearest natural places, is there any hope for the far-flung and less-visited wild places that make the Northwest special?
July 28, 2005
The Way-Too-Big House
I've been noticing that older houses in my Seattle-area neighborhood are being steadily replaced by much larger mansion-sized structures--one of which is large enough to be an orphanage. Apparently this is a national trend: the size of new single-family homes has more than doubled since the 1940s (from 1,100 to 2,340 sq.ft.), according to a recent article in the Journal of Industrial Ecology (see full pdf here). Combining this with the trend towards smaller households (from 3.67 to 2.62 members), authors Wilson and Boehland find that:
In new, single-family houses constructed in the United States, living area per family member has increased by a factor of 3 since the 1950s.
This has several environmental implications. Larger houses not only use more building materials, but may also consume proportionally more. Larger houses that include higher ceilings, complex designs such as extra wings, and other features may mean that material use increases proportionally faster than square-footage.
And building out has more impacts per square foot than building up because the increased impervious footprint generates more storm water runoff, taxing sewer capacity.
Not surprisingly, big houses also require more energy to heat and cool. Good insulation and green building techniques can only do so much for conservation. When the authors calculated heating and cooling costs for a small, poorly insulated house and a well insulated house twice as large, they found the small house still used almost a third less energy. So size really does matter, as Clark has also blogged about.
What has caused the trend? Wilson and Boehland cite several factors. Some zoning laws and development covenants mandate minimum house sizes (but some now also mandate maximums). Mortgages for new houses often specify a minimum ratio of house value to land value. And until 1998, tax laws required home sellers to buy a house of equal or greater value unless they wanted to pay capital gains taxes on the appreciated value of their old house.
Wilson and Boehland also suggest that the notion of "bigger is better" may be inflating house sizes (see Alan’s post on up-sizing the American dream). But a big house can also be lifeless: quantity without quality. Instead of adding extra rooms, new home builders could invest in the details that give houses their charm (moldings, built in cabinets, granite countertops) and spend more for green details (better insulation, water-saving devices, sustainable materials). They’d save money on energy bills and reduce their environmental impact.
Personally, I'd rather spend my home time reading in a bay window seat than cleaning an extra 600 square feet of house.
July 18, 2005
This would make a great reality TV show: As chronicled in online magazine the Tyee, a couple in British Columbia decides that for one year they will only eat food that is grown or raised within a 100-mile radius of where they live--with a few exceptions.
Why? The short answer is "fossil fuels bad." The average American (and probably Canadian) meal, they point out, uses 17 times more petroleum products than an entirely local meal. And:
Let's translate that into the ecological footprint model devised by Dr. William Rees of UBC which measures how many planets'-worth of resources would be needed if everyone did the same. If you had an average North American lifestyle in every other way, from driving habits to the size of your house, by switching to a local diet you would save almost an entire planet's worth of resources (though you'd still be gobbling up seven earths).
And how hard could it be to eat within 100 miles? After all, they live in an area rich in fertile farmland and seas. They imagined they would eat seasonally, their table heavy with the best produce, fish, and free-range meat that British Columbia has to offer, even while their neighbors were chomping on cardboard tomatoes flown in from Mexico and California.
It turns out it’s both difficult and expensive. Local grains don’t exist, except for a few heritage grains. Yes, there are local free-range cows and chickens, but the animals are raised on non-local feed. In summer, BC's abundant farmer's markets serve them well, but many of the supermarkets still sell much shipped produce, except for, say, local organic salad mix at $17.99 a pound. Summer, of course, only lasts so long.
And here’s the kicker: Vegetarianism doesn’t work well because soy isn’t grown locally. So they’re forced to ask this question: “Does vegetarianism fit into a local, sustainable diet?” And the answer isn’t clear at all. (Part II--"Wanted: A Perfectly Local Chicken"--covers this tricky issue.)
Their few exceptions--and funny moments, such as an attempt to make strawberry preserves with honey--begin adding up. Their butts also begin to shrink. (Add a diet book to the reality TV show .)
Their experiment points (again) to this fact: Eating is complicated for thoughtful people who believe that everyday actions such as buying food have a heck of an impact on the world. On the other hand, just the fact that they're attempting the feat, and that they have an attentive audience, bodes well for efforts to limit our impacts.
I happened to pick up a July 2005 copy of Gourmet magazine this week, and noticed that writer Bill McKibben was trying a similar experiment in the Vermont/Lake Champlain area. Interestingly, his take was more positive than the BC couple's. Does that mean that Vermont is ahead of BC in small-scale food production?
May 23, 2005
I Must Be Dense
Seems like there's been a rash of anti-density columns in Seattle of late. First there was last week's Mossback column in the Seattle Weekly (which I discussed here). Then, on Saturday, P-I columnist Joel Connelly got into the action with this chestnut in a piece about Seattle's struggling middle class:
Are working families going to move into the higher buildings and downtown condos championed by Mayor Nickels? Not likely. The new living space seems intended for affluent empty nesters.
Granting Connelly his due: that may well be right. But if so, it's exactly the sort of thing that would help middle-class families who are being squeezed by high housing prices.
The developers who are planning to build some of the downtown residential high rises are probably hoping, very much, that they will be in demand by empty nesters -- folks who'd like to downsize from the single-family homes where they raised their kids, and are looking for a slightly less expensive and more manageable abode. In fact, for the developers, it would be a dream come true if that happened, since some empty nesters would have a fair bit of cash on hand if they sold their homes.
But what happens when a lot of people sell their single-family homes? Well, if the number of single family homes on the market goes up, then their price should go down -- or, at a minimum, not rise quite so quickly.
Which goes to the heart of the matter: all else being equal, building more housing tends to make housing less expensive. And one reason that housing prices are rising so quickly is because there's just not enough of it to meet the current demand. Of course, the supply of single-family homes with yards within city limits is pretty much fixed, which means that just about the only way to build more housing is to build a) small accessory dwelling units (also called grandma flats), b) townhouses, or c) multifamily housing, such as apartments or condos. (Well, you could also cover Lake Union with houseboats, but let's not get into that here...)
This is all pretty basic stuff, but apparently it's easy to lose sight of.
In fact, it seems to me that some folks who are so critical of increasing density are confusing cause with effect. They see the cost of housing going up; they see new condos being built, and proposals to build even more; and they figure the new construction is causing the price increases. That's sort of silly, when you think about it: the pressure for high-rises, new apartments and condos, etc., is an effect of high housing prices, not their cause. In fact--and at the risk of anthropomorphising an abstraction--new condo construction may be an example of the market's invisible hand trying to bring housing supply into line with demand.
In terms of affordability, if there's one hidden danger with the new construction, it's this: if you build intersting neighborhoods with abundant housing, nice amenities and a good mixture of stores and services, you may also be creating the kinds of places where people really want to live. The sort of neighborhoods that people are willing to pay a premium to be a part of. So if you do too good a job of creating nice places to live throughout the city, then people will start migrating to Seattle for its high quality of life.
Which is, in many ways, a nice sort of problem for a city to have.