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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.

Expand efforts to create compact, green, urban neighborhoods (double ditto). Ultimately, compact neighborhoods are the real alternative to driving.

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.

Posted by Alan Durning | Permalink


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Sounds like more of the same old thing especially the "regional road pricing system." Dream on. If for no other reason than privacy concerns, tolling roads simply is not (should not, as well) going to happen.

Posted by: Raw Data | Mar 28, 2006 10:03:23 PM

I agree about the freeways comment. Fortunately, this no-build concept got some play in the local press recently. For this to come through, we need a consensus between the greens and the anti-tax fiscal conservative. Who knows...it might work.

Posted by: Ryan Carson | Mar 29, 2006 8:50:08 AM

At the risk of sounding like a member of an amen chorus in comments, I agree.

But let me also say I've got shelf space devoted to Alan's work. So:

Road pricing is NOT the only way to solve congestion. Pricing itself won't do it, unless alternatives are provided, like transit; our separation of live-work space ensures this plan won't go over well at all. I'm not sure how to pay for more light rail mileage and the real estate underneath it, but I'm sure we'll have to raise taxes to pay for it. I'm pretty sure that, in the wake of the monorail, that won't go over very well.

I also share Alan's regret about the plans/campaign for shoring up the auto infrastructure around here, for the reason I stated above. For recommendation #1, this is imperative to shore up the auto infrastructure, as buses are the sole nominally efficient means of transportation (in the city limits). Solving the multifarious transportation issues around here will take a generation, and making folks angry who have no choice but to put up with the current paradigm won't help any. The lack of willingness to fight for something will delay any plans still more.

Oh, wait: that's not what Alan meant. Well, we certainly have a lack of leadership in high places. With no one around to explain why allowing the current infrastructure we're stuck with for at least a decade to crumble is a good idea, SOMEONE will have to explain why the region's quality of life is declining in the short run in order for the globe's quality of life to improve in the long run. I, personally, haven't worked out that bit yet.

All that being said, we have to start somewhere, and it's important to start.

It's more important to start with educating the people who will be affected by these plans. With no buy-in from the folks being affected, nothing will happen.

What plans does NEW have to get the word out to the teevee watchers and newspaper readers, so they will accept such a perceived drastic change in their lives?

Dan Staley

Posted by: Dan Staley | Mar 29, 2006 10:12:24 AM

To Dan's point: I was inspired by recent responses to an article in the times detailing a "traffic vortex" at the end of 520 in Redmond. The chorus of comments was simple: "stop enabling unsustainable sprawl." So, people in our community get it. We as activists need to find a way to connect the dots between transit capacity through a major city and its effects on outlying sprawl.

Fundamentally, though...there is an anti-tax sentiment which can be riled up and used, at least in the short-term, to work in our favor on this issue.

Posted by: Ryan Carson | Mar 29, 2006 10:43:20 AM

Ryan, good comments and a question:

Anti-tax sentiments - if coordinated and enacted - usu. result in reduced spending on public investments. How does riling up an anti-tax sentiment work in favor of a public investment plan that needs substantial revenue?


Posted by: Dan Staley | Mar 29, 2006 12:20:52 PM

"Full disclosure: the commission is also full of friends and even funders of Northwest Environment Watch."

So, basically, you're admitting that the commission is loaded with people who agree with a predetermined conclusion, regardless of what the facts actually say?

Posted by: Anonymous | Mar 31, 2006 2:54:22 AM

"So, basically, you're admitting that the commission is loaded with people who agree with a predetermined conclusion, regardless of what the facts actually say? "

No. Your conclusion does not follow from the statement - that is: you haven't shown it is true.

As there is no information stating what the individual commission members think about the conclusions, there is no basis to this argument.

There is an equal likelihood that they disagree with the conclusions, despite what your unstated "facts" actually "say".

Posted by: Dan Staley | Mar 31, 2006 10:13:56 AM

I was a bit disappointed that the report only called for a doubling in the amount of bike lanes...taking us from 1.5% to 3% of all arterials? That still pales in comparison to Portland (25%, as mentioned) and many of the European cities I'm visiting this week (currently in Stockholm). The saving grace is that it calls for the full implementation of the Bicycle Master Plan, which will soon be written.

Posted by: Rodney Rutherford | Apr 3, 2006 3:04:16 AM

Ditto about only doubling. Do you know the Portland figure to be right, from some independent source? It's so much higher that I wondered if it was a typo! (2.5%?)

Yes, Stockholm's pedestrian infrastructure is a marvel.

Posted by: Alan Durning | Apr 3, 2006 6:56:23 AM