April 19, 2006
Sims Gets On The Bus
I'm stunned by King County Exec Ron Sims' proposal to increase the sales tax to fund better bus service. For an additional 1/10th of a penny per dollar, Sims believes the county can drastically improve bus service--increasing the frequency and speed of routes and adding capacity to boot. (The Seattle Times reports; the P-I editorializes in favor.)
I have no idea what prompted Sims' outburst of sanity. These days, Puget Sound residents are accustomed to pony up for outlandish schemes of miracle monorails, glammed-out streetcars, multi-billion dollar tunnels, and vast highway expansion measures. (Not to mention problem-plagued light rail, the one transit option that's almost a reality.) Buses, on the other hand, are not especially sexy and they don't come with big-ticket political bragging rights. They're just staid, effective, flexible, and affordable. And--oh yes--they're already working so well that they're over-subscribed, at least in the city.
So on the upside, Sims' bus boosting proposal will improve mobility in the near future. On the downside, it doesn't promise flying saucers or citizen jet-packs, and it doesn't come with a flock of crazy-eyed proponents. (I do have a non-humorous quibble; but more on that later...)
Improving bus service is critical to the continued health of Seattle and the rest of King County too because it makes density work. As the region's density increases it should be able to leverage ever more viable transit--with more people in a neighborhood, it makes sense to run more buses, more often.
This morning as I was shuffling onto the 28 Express--a double-length bus crammed so full that we were standing in the aisles the entire length of the coach and crowding up near the driver--I wondered for the billionth time when Metro would start running twice as many buses. I also wondered why I wasn't on my bicycle. And I wondered whether I should drive more often. I'll bet my not-especially-dense Ballard neighborhood could fill double the buses, especially as more frequent departures tapped latent demand. And as nearly every week reveals new townhouses going up in formerly low-density lots, and condos rising along busy corridors, I wonder if we couldn't fill triple the buses.
So I'm all for Sims' bus proposal. All for it. I just hope that it doesn't get swamped by the headline-grabbers like the Alaska Way Viaduct tunnel, the regional transportation improvement ticket that voters will see this autumn, and all the other kooky multi-billion dollar career-makers. I'm hoping that local leaders--and local voters--remember that bus service works and it's a bargain.
Now a quibble. Why sales taxes? Most King County residents are already paying 8.8 percent and sales taxes are regressive, falling hardest on those who can least afford them. That's a problem, I think, in a county that's struggling with affordability issues. (Admittedly, some of that regressivity is mitigated because the higher taxes pay for bus service, which is especially important to lower income folks.) Wouldn't a better way to fund buses be something ingenious like a fee or tax based on the value of cars. Something more or less exactly like the monorail fee? *
* Yes, I know that such a tax/fee would require enabling legislation from Olympia. Enable it already. It has a host of benefits: it's progressive (because owners of more expensive cars pay more), it's nicely symmetrical (because it provides an incentive to switch from car to transit), and it's deductible from federal income taxes. It's also potentially localizable, meaning that your car tab renewal fee could pay for transit in your neighborhood. If West Seattle gets drastically better bus service, then West Seattle car owners could pay the bill. But if you live in Duvall and don't see many buses anyway, your fee could be proportionally lower. In any case, it would probably be far, far cheaper than the current monorail fee that's just about to expire.
April 13, 2006
Another week, another anti-city screed from the Seattle Weekly's Knute Berger. There's lots to pick apart in this week's column by "Mossback," but I'll restrain myself.
According to Berger, increasing density won't address sprawl on the urban fringe because:
Big growth in downtown Seattle won't be a sponge for regional growth. In fact, it will likely drive additional growth in the region—just look at the San Francisco Bay Area, which has sprawled endlessly despite San Francisco's higher densities and incomes. A Seattle boom will generate more sprawl and more density, in part because we don't have the strict growth controls in place to truly limit it.
Berger's argument is a lovely compliment to sprawl industry flaks whose mantra is: we can't have growth controls because there's nowhere to build in the cities. But Berger doesn't want density because the growth controls aren't strong enough. No density without growth controls; no growth controls with density. This leaves us in a bit of a pickle.
The obvious solution that Berger overlooks is that increasing density can indeed help corral sprawl. Can density solve the problem all by itself? Of course not. Does that mean density is worthless for controlling sprawl? Again, of course not. Growth boundaries on the urban fringe are important too; and so is smart planning. (That is, density is a necessary condition of growth management, but it's not a sufficient one.)
Definitive proof that density reduces sprawl is hard to come by, but I can get close.
Check out this report, using Census data to track growth in 14 US cities during the 1990s. The cities that do best at controlling sprawl are also the ones boosting their density. Take Portland, Oregon. If Portland had grown like a typical city in the study--that is, if newcomers to Portland had spread out in the typical low-density fashion--the Rose City would have swallowed an additional 150 square miles of rural land. How did Portland spare so many farms and forests? A paired combination of density and growth boundaries. Seattle--with weaker growth controls during the period and anti-density Bergers in the mix--did worse than Portland, but not nearly so badly as places like Charlotte or Nashville.
Berger's argument is, in any case, weirdly perverse. He implies that density will actually speed growth into the Seattle region because--why?--people find density appealing? If people like density enough to move here, I suppose one strategy to prevent growth would be to outlaw density. Or we could try a massive urban uglification campaign, perhaps driving away current residents to boot. Even easier, we could just get rid of cops and fire departments and see how the region grows then. That'll show 'em.
Truth is, I actually agree with Berger sometimes. I just wish he would stick to making claims he can support instead of getting carried away (see here and here, for instance). He's right to caution against damaging Seattle's historic and architectural legacy. And he's right to remind us, in a general way, to preserve the best of the old while we build for the future. But ranting about paying for parking (in urban neighborhoods, fer gosh sakes!) or "privatizing" sunlight by permitting skyscrapers (no, I'm not making that up) sounds less like civic smarts and more like incoherent ranting.
Toxic (Press) Releases
Good news about pollution? The US EPA says so. This Washington Post story makes it seem like the US made great strides in reducing toxic emissions in 2004.
The Environmental Protection Agency said Wednesday that chemical pollution released into the environment fell more than 4 percent from 2003 to 2004...The agency said releases of dioxin and dioxin compounds fell 58 percent; mercury and mercury compounds were cut 16 percent; and PCBs went down 92 percent. [Emphasis added.]
Now, the fall in dioxins in particular seemed like pretty big news. But it also struck me as a bit suspicious. So I looked into the numbers a bit.
The EPA's Toxics Release Inventory Explorer is pretty simple to use, so it didn't take long to zero in on why, exactly, dioxin emissions fell so much. The basic scoop -- it's not so much that dioxin emissions fell in 2004, as that they spiked in 2003. The nation's dioxin emissions (at least, those captured by the TRI) in 2004 were comparable to levels from 2000 through 2002. The 58 percent "decline" was just relative to 2003, which was abnormally high.
Then the question becomes -- what happened in 2003? Apparently, there was a single wood-preserving facility in Lousiana that was responsible for the 2003 spike. (I don't know for sure, but I'd guess they landfilled a bunch of contaminated waste.)
So the national "good news" story about dioxins in 2004--a 58 percent decline in releases--turns out to be, if anything, a bad news story about 2003. Or, more properly, it's an artifact of the way the data are reported: the dioxin "released" in 2003 was likely just transferred from one place to another, in a way that triggered EPA's reporting requirements.
The thing is, it took just a few minutes to figure out that the EPA's press release was, at least in part, full of hot air. Obviously, reporters are under tremendous pressure to churn out stories. But I do wish that basic fact-checking was a higher priority for them. Bum facts passed off as "good news" should be recognized for what they are: a form of toxic information pollution.
Closer to home, the news seems a little bit better for dioxin trends. In Washington, Oregon, and Idaho combined, releases to air, water, and land have fallen from 163 grams in 2000 to 46 grams in 2004. "Off-site disposal" -- transfers for storage or treatment -- has climbed a bit, though. On net, 2004's total dioxin releases were a bit higher than 2002 and 2003, but have fallen by about a quarter since 2000. And the three states combined now account for about 2 tenths of one percent of national dioxin emissions, as measured by TRI data.
That said, there are some facilities that escape TRI reporting requirements, and much of the dioxin releases from the region are now from activities such as backyard trash burning. But the numbers, for the northwest at least, do seem modestly promising.
April 10, 2006
Hitting the Sweet Spot
Here's a cool graph from the Puget Sound Regional Council that illustrates the "sweet-spot" for highway speeds. Apparently, traffic throughput is maximized at about 1,800-2,000 cars per highway lane (the horizontal axis) when vehicles are moving somewhere between 40 and 50 miles per hour (the vertical axis).
As the graph shows, when speeds are lower than that, or higher than that, then highways aren't operating as efficiently as they might.
So it would seem (to me at least) that a key ingredient in reducing demand for new highways is to keep traffic on existing roads flowing at somewhere between 40 and 50 miles an hour, even at times of peak demand. How to do that? Metered on-ramps help; so would tolling the most congested highways.
Sturgeon's General Warning
Sounds as though salmon aren't the only Columbia River fish in trouble:
A team of researchers that examined 174 sturgeon caught by commercial and tribal fishermen found male and immature females tricked by chemicals into thinking they are full of estrogen, a female hormone with feminizing effects. Male fish tainted with a cocktail of compounds including mercury and a byproduct of the banned pesticide DDT showed depressed testosterone levels, which could keep them from maturing enough to spawn.
A few sturgeon even had bizarre combinations of male and female sexual organs. [Emphasis added.]
All I have to say to that is: eewww. If that doesn't serve as a wakeup call about gender-bending pollutants, I'm not sure what will.
April 07, 2006
Say It Ain't So, Joe
I picked up a copy of the March issue of Seattle Magazine the other day, and happened across an article (print only, I'm afraid) by the estimable Joe Follansbee. The article claims that Seattle suffers from an inferiority complex: whenever Seattle residents compare their home town with Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, BC, they always decide that Seattle comes up short. Follansbee argues that Seattle should just learn to love itself just as it is, rather than falling victim to sibling rivalry.
Interesting enough idea. But there's one thing that sticks in my craw: in trying to puncture the reputation of neighboring cities, Follansbee claims that Portland has an unusally low number of children, compared with its neighboring metropolises:
Portland's downtown Pearl District, hailed as the embodiment of "smart growth"...had only three more children living there in 2000 than in 1990, according to demographers. What's "smart" about a city without children?
Do we [i.e., Seattle] want to be like Portland, childless and..."proper"?
Enough already! This factoid--that Portland is devoid of tykes--is simply false. It doesn't even pass the 5 minute Google test; that is, it takes less than five minutes of web searching to see that it doesn't hold water. And yet, it's a theme I hear again and again in discussions of Portland and smart growth generally.
It's high time to roast this chestnut.
As it turns out, what's true for Portland's Pearl District -- that there aren't many children -- doesn't hold true for the rest of Portland. Take a look at the Census Bureau's Portland "quick facts." As of the last Census count, 21.1 percent of the city's residents were children under the age of 18, compared with 24.7 for Oregon as a whole.
So the city does have fewer children than the state as a whole, by 3.6 percentage points. But take a look at the Seattle "quick facts." Minors account for just 15.6 percent of the city's population. In comparison, Portland is teeming with kids -- 40 percent more, measured per capita, than in Seattle. And the gap between Seattle and the whole of Washington is 10 percentage points -- nearly 3 times wider than the gap between Portland and Oregon.
So it makes absolutely no sense -- none -- to ask whether Seattle wants to be "childless" like Portland.
Admittedly, Portland has fewer kids than many US cities. But it's pretty much on par with Denver and Minneapolis, has a few more kids per capita than Pittsburgh, and far more than San Francisco (where under-18-year-olds are just 14.5 percent of the population). In Vancouver, BC -- often held up as an exemplar of family-friendly urbanity -- children under 18 made up only
15.5 16.6 percent of the population in 2001.
Diving into the Vancouver numbers a bit deeper, it seems that there's no major part of Vancouver -- not downtown, not the west side, not even the semi-suburban south end -- that has a kids-to-population ratio that's as high as in Portland. And the kid-to-population gap between Vancouver and the whole of BC is wider than for Portland and the whole of Oregon. Vancouver's denser neighborhoods have a reputation for having lots of kids, and in large part they do -- but only because they have lots of people, period. As a share of the population, though, Portland has far more kids than "kid-friendly" Vancouver.
I'm sure this post won't put an end to the urban legend of Portland's childlessness (although it may perpetuate the impression that there aren't many kids in the Northwest's other major cities). But I hope it helps.
On a deeper level, I'm puzzled by all the hand-wringing about childless cities. As of the last census, families with children comprised less than one in three Northwest households. And the number of childless households is growing for good reasons. We're having kids later in life, and fewer of them -- largely because of better educational and job opportunities for women. Plus we're living longer, so seniors are making up a far larger share of the population than they used to. For the large and growing number of childless households, urban living has a strong appeal -- they're the ones who appear to be flocking to housing in dense urban centers. So to the extent that the trends towards "childless cities" is real, it's largely driven by demographic changes that we'd be foolish to want to reverse.
What do the angst-ridden commentators lamenting the lack of children downtown want people to do? Have kids even if they'd prefer not to? Die before they get a chance to down-nest? Move their families to urban condos in order to save some single-family detached houses for hipsters? Help me out here, folks.
April 04, 2006
Montana to Insurers: Cover The Pill
Late last week,
Among Cascadian states, California and Washington already require equal treatment for prescription contraceptives: California, by law; Washington, by ruling of the state Insurance Commissioner. In Montana, the action came in a binding legal opinion issued by the state’s Attorney General. Excluding contraceptives from prescription drug plans is sex discrimination, AG Mike McGrath concluded. The rule has the force of law unless it’s overturned by the legislature or a state court. The legislature is unlikely to do so: the state senate approved a bill to ensure equal coverage for contraceptives last fall, although the state house did not join them. It’s unlikely, therefore, that both houses would pass a law that reversed the AG’s ruling.
March 29, 2006
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.