« October 2005 | Main | December 2005 »

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?

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

November 29, 2005

Up With Poverty

New state-level income and poverty data just released today by the US Census Bureau. I've just begun playing with the numbers. But before I get too immersed in the spreadsheets, here's a look at how Cascadian states have fared over the last years for which data is available.

The skinny is that incomes are up, but poverty is up too. (As far as I can tell, the income figures are not adjusted for inflation, so they may not represent real gains.) Of course, these figures are just stats-based estimates, so it's wise not to draw too many conclusions.

Nevertheless, it is telling that all 5 states mimicked the national trend: rising incomes and rising poverty.

Median household incomes




$            47,323

$        48,440


$            38,242

$        39,859


$            34,105

$        34,449


$            41,796

$        42,593


$            46,399

$        48,185

United States

$            42,409

$        43,318

Poverty rates


















United States



Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

November 28, 2005

Manifold Sins

They say that confession is good for the soul.  Here's mine: I'm entering into my sixth winter in my current house, but I only got around to insulating my furnace and ductwork over the last few weeks. I hadn't even insulated my furnace manifold -- the place where all the hot air collects before being blown through the ducts to the rest of the house -- which I understand is the most cost-effective place to insulate.

So much for my "green" credentials.  I can't even hold a candle to this guy.

You see, I kept putting off the insulation job, thinking that we'd replace our clunky old gas furnace and oddly-placed ductwork with a new, super-efficient system before even a modest investment in insulation would pay for itself.  That was, quite clearly, nuts:  by now, the money I would have saved on heating bills would have paid for a nice downpayment towards an efficient furnace. 

Surprisingly -- to me at least -- the payback has been immediate, and not just to my peace of mind.  Even if I don't save a penny overall, the house is more comfortable now.  We don't set the thermostat any higher, but our home seems warmer, with less temperature variation between the overly-toasty rooms and the chilly ones.  (And we had a lot of variation for such a modest house.)

Two lessons for me here.  First: when it comes to saving energy, do the cheap and easy stuff now. Don't weigh the options, don't calculate whether it will be in place long enough to justify the cost. Just do it.  I kept putting off a simple, short-term fix, believing that it would be obviated by a more comprehensive solution down the road.  But as a result of my delays, I wound up wasting a lot of money, and spewing a lot of climate-warming emissions into the air for no good reason. 

And second: even people who think of themselves as greenies (like me) are motivated as much by price as by principles.  What convinced me to finally go to the hardware store was, more than anything, the specter of a huge heating bill.  Rising natural gas prices made the payback from insulating my furnace that much quicker; and, being honest with myself, it was the economic reasons, more than the environmental ones, that actually got me moving.  If my own example is any guide, it seems as though self-interest will often trump ethics -- which is something everyone who is working towards a more sustainable future should keep in mind.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

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.

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Proposal to Legalize Granny Flats in SE Seattle

Good news on the smart-growth front: Seattle's mayor is working on a pilot program to legalize granny flats in southeast Seattle.

Currently residents of single-family neighborhoods can't rent out extra space they may have in "detached accessory dwelling units", such as an apartment above their garage, although basement apartments are legal.

Granny flats provide a variety of benefits. They increase density, supporting better transit and more services for the neighborhood. They increase the housing supply and create affordable housing in the city. They can give homeowners a source of income to help with the mortgage. And, with kids returning to the nest post-college and aging parents needing more care, they provide extra space with a degree of privacy.

The program would limit the impact on neighbors by requiring one off-street parking space per unit and restricting the size of the new units. Reactions to a demonstration project in Magnolia, in which a wheelchair-bound resident added an apartment for a future live-in nurse, were very positive: 65 percent of surveyed neighbors rated the project "good". While some are worried that allowing rental granny flats will turn neighborhoods into "ghettos," (huh!?) that doesn't seem to be the case in cities that already allow them, such as Mercer Island, Kirkland, and Redmond.

Posted by Jessica Branom-Zwick | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

November 18, 2005

Inelasticity? It's a Stretch

It may come as a bit of a surprise:  despite rising gas prices over the past few years, total consumption of highway fuels in the US has actually increased, rather than fallen.  Some have seized on this phenomenon -- prices and consumption rising in tandem -- to suggest that changes in gas prices have no discernible effect on how much gas we actually use. 

The idea that gas prices have no effect on consumption doesn't accord with economic theory, to put it mildly.  And this Excel spreadsheet (courtesy of Charles Komanoff and the ever-informative Todd Litman) sheds some light on what's really going on.  Apparently, even as US gas prices have risen, so have population and GDP.  And GDP growth tends to push consumption levels up -- in fact, over the short term, gas consumption seems to be more responsive to changes in GDP than to changes in prices.

The spreadsheet tries to tease apart the two competing forces, and finds that -- all else being equal -- each 10 percent rise in gas prices is, in fact, accompanied by a 1 percent decline in gasoline sales within a year. Which suggests that, had gas prices remained stable over the past few years, consumption would have risen even faster than it did.

It should come as little surprise that, over short time horizons, substantial gas price hikes only reduce sales a small amount.  People have only so much flexibility to reduce their gas consumption over the short term -- a fact that economists have understood for years. 

But what remains to be seen is whether a sustained increase in gas prices will be accompanied by deeper declines in sales, as people begin to change houses, jobs, or cars to account for higher transportation costs.  That's what economists predict will happen; but  we'll just have to wait to see how well reality matches up with theory.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

November 17, 2005

November 19 and the Hell's Kitchen of Sustainability

Editor's note: Guest contributor Hans Peter Meyer writes on community development issues from Courtenay, British Columbia.

Saturday, November 19, is local government election day in British Columbia.

It's too late to nominate anyone, and it's too late to really organize. By the time British Columbians read this, there won't be much left to do but vote for whoever you think has the vision and the energy to put the pieces in place for a more 'livable,' more 'sustainable' future.

Why does local government matter? Joy Leach once said of her experience as Mayor of Naniamo, one of Vancouver Island's biggest municipalities, "Local government is the Hell's Kitchen of sustainability." It's at local council tables and regional board meetings that so many of the big issues become real. Garbage. Sewage. Town design for cars, bikes, pedestrians, and buses. Development applications to spread expensive infrastructure, or 'intensify' populations and reduce the ecological footprint. These are the nuts and bolts of community sustainability.

Some changes seem to take place overnight: All of a sudden there's a $1M highway connector between two small towns. Or a huge box store in the middle of prime agricultural land. But in fact, these land use decisions were made years, even decades before anything happens on the ground. Someone put the pieces in place so that when the time was ripe, the plan and the action unfolded.

We need people in local government willing to put the pieces in place for healthier communities and neighbourhoods in 10, 25, and 50 years.

I live in Courtenay on Vancouver Island. At about 20,000 people, it’s still a small city, blessed with its own set of beauties and eyesores. But it’s growing rapidly. The tsunami of growth in BC won’t reach its full peak until after the 2010 Olympics. By then, the world will know that this place--from Vancouver to Whistler and all of Vancouver Island--is a wonderful place to call ‘home.’ Before that big wave bears down on us, we need an elected team willing to tackle this list:

- implement a workable a growth management strategy.

- do some bona fide community economic development planning.

- strategize on a regional basis on emerging youth issues, drug and crime issues, housing & poverty issues.

The list of issues are piling up faster than the condos and single-family dwellings are being built. And it’s growing. Another reason to consider carefully who you'll pick to represent you in your local 'Hell's Kitchen of sustainability.'

Posted by hanspetermeyer | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Streetcars Are History

Trolley_1 An interesting bit of local history in the Seattle P-I.

By 1892 Seattle was crisscrossed with 48 miles of electric railway and 22 miles of cable railway, stretching from Georgetown to Ballard. According to state historian Walter Crowley, the construction of the streetcar routes segued into smart new development:

...developers platted new neighborhoods clustered around compact business districts at street railway intersections, built broad avenues such as Westlake, Madison and 15th Northwest, and opened attractive parks at Golden Gardens, Alki Beach and Guy Phinney's former Woodland Estate to lure residents and riders.

Unfortunately, the streetcar city was not long for this world. After losing money for years the city bought the lines--under circumstances so suspicious that a grand jury authorized an investigation. The city eventually ceded authority to the state and by 1941 Seattle was without streetcars, ushering in an era of auto-dominated transportation, with a small emphasis on buses.

And in that short history are a number of explanations for our current transportation problems.

It's probably no coincidence that in the post-WWII era Seattle's neighborhoods spread far and wide. And with ever less emphasis on density and integrating commercial centers into residential settings.

But the most interesting feature of streetcar history may be the reminder of how mutable our transportation infrastructure is. The car is by far the dominant mode nowadays, but it wasn't always and it may not always be so. New plans for streetcars, light rail, bus rapid transit, pedestrian-oriented streets, and even the now-dead monorail may signal a coming seismic shift in transportation planning. And while people may complain about a profusion of transit agencies today, we should remember that Seattle once had no fewer than 22 competing streetcar lines.

The other interesting facet of streetcar history is how quickly they were surplused for not making a profit. That is, the trolley lines suffered the same fate of our lately departed monorail. What an odd double-standard that is: transit must pay its way, but the car should be feted with tax dollars.

When was the last time that I-405 or the Alaska Way Viaduct made a profit?

Oh that's right. Never.

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Downtown Rising

Brookings scholar Eugenie Birch has an interesting paper on trends in downtown living in 44 major US cities between 1970 and 2000 -- finding that, on average, downtown homeownership, educational levels, and racial and ethnic diversity all increased over the period.  Also -- and unsurprisingly -- downtown residents tend to be younger than they used to be.  City living apparently developed a cachet among the 25-to-34 age demographic that it didn't have 30 years before. 

The worst news -- but also unsurprising -- is that downtowns are economically stratified, with some downtown census tracts having particularly high incomes, and others with particularly low incomes.

But most relevant to the Northwest is this:  in percentage terms, Seattle ranked second of all 44 cities in downtown population growth.  As a whole, the city of Seattle grew 7 percent total in 3 decades -- a fairly slow pace of growth.  But the downtown population grew by 86 percent.  Similarly, Portland ranks sixth on the list for downtown growth, with a population increase of 56 percent since 1970.  Meanwhile, Boise's downtown population fell by a quarter -- which is a bit of a surprise, given how quickly the city is growing. Overall, only 15 of the 44 cities saw their downtown populations increase between 1970 and 2000 -- this despite a fairly widespread increase in downtown populations in the 1990s.

Of course, these figures may be misleading in some respects.  Some cities, particularly in the industrial midwest and along the eastern seaboard, started out with comparatively dense and populous downtowns in the 1970s, but have seen substantial declines since then; Detroit, St. Louis, and Baltimore fall into that camp.  Still, even if those downtowns lost population in absolute terms, they may still be far denser & more populous than the downtowns in many of the newer cities in the US west.  Just so, Seattle's downtown started the 1970s with a fairly small population base -- so an 86 percent increase, as big a deal as it is in relative terms, is small potatoes in absolute terms.

So:  relative to where they started in 1970, the downtowns of Seattle and Portland Northwest are growing quickly. But there's still a long way to go before they're as lively as, say, San Francisco, Boston, or Manhattan.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Plan D for Plan B

NARAL Pro Choice America is supporting a bill in Congress to force FDA off the fence on Plan B. (Via TomPaine.com)

The bill is dubbed "Plan B for Plan B."

(Oh, and about the title, we've already used  "Plan B for Plan B" and "Plan C for Plan B," which left us with "Plan D . . . ")

Posted by Alan Durning | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack