April 17, 2006

Dead Man Walking


(Editor's note: See two other posts in series, "Carless in Seattle," and "A Mile From Home.")

Transit and walking are time consuming. Most people are just too busy. That’s obvious, right?

Well, as my family begins the ninth week of its experiment in car-less living, I’m finding a few flaws in that logic. Here are two.

1. Time spent on transit is different from time spent driving. People vary, of course, but for me, transit time is a pure gain over driving. I don’t enjoy driving. I’d rather read than listen to music or talk radio. And I can read without queasiness on all forms of transit. For me, then, car time is a waste of life, but transit time is living, and I’ll happily choose a 30 minute transit trip over a 15 minute car trip. For me, driving is time consuming.

2. Just so, walking doesn’t consume time, for different reasons. In fact, walking creates time. For one thing, if you walk for transportation, you don’t have to go to the gym as often.

More profoundly, walking gives you time you wouldn’t otherwise have at all. Walking makes you live longer, as Clark posted here. The largest ever study of the subject found that walking 30 minutes a day, five days a week, adds 1.3-1.5 years to your life, on average. (More vigorous exercise adds even more.) On reasonable assumptions (detailed below the fold), this relationship means that for every minute you spend walking, you get three back.

Time spent walking, then, is utterly free. It’s time you would have spent dead.

Nowadays, when I’m walking, I get a little pleasure in the thought that I’m cheating death, that every minute I spend afoot is an extra moment of life.

Boring, wonky, calculation notes:

My assumptions—which I’d appreciate some astute blog reader checking against the original journal article that reports the study on which Clark posted—are that you have to walk 30 minutes a day, five days a week, for thirty years to get the 1.3-1.5 year lifespan bonus. I made up the 30 year figure (too busy to read the journal (wink)).

Then I calculate 30 minutes x 5 (days) x 52 (weeks) = 7,800 minutes of exercise per year x (guess of) 30 years = 234,000 minutes of walking, repaid with 1.4 years or 736,000 minutes of added life. That’s about three minutes extra for every minute you walk.

Note that even if have to walk five days a week from birth to age 90, you’re still getting every single walking minute back, though you wouldn't get three.

Posted by Alan Durning | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

April 05, 2006

One Mile from Home

(Editor's note: See the two other posts in the walkability series, "Carless in Seattle" and "Dead Man Walking.")

Burley_compressed_1Last week, I displayed the wreckage of our 1986 stationwagon; this week, its replacement: our 1996 Burley stroller/bike trailer. (It’s Cascadia-made in Eugene, Oregon.)

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.

Sunset_bowlAmong 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.)

Here’s how:

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.

Posted by Alan Durning | Permalink | Comments (42) | TrackBack

March 29, 2006

Car-less in Seattle


(Editor's note: Also see "A Mile From Home" and "Dead Man Walking.")

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.

Posted by Alan Durning | Permalink | Comments (32) | TrackBack

March 01, 2006

Eat More Veggies

Green_giant_1 Lots more. According to a new biochemical analysis, the nutritional value of US vegetables has declined over the last 50 years. That's because new varieties of fast-growing crops designed to maximize output cannot take up or synthesize nutrients as quickly as more slow-growing plants. The result:

...of 13 major nutrients in fruits and vegetables tracked by the Agriculture Department from 1950 to 1999, six showed noticeable declines -- protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin and vitamin C. The declines ranged from 6 percent for protein, 15 percent for iron, 20 percent for vitamin C, and 38 percent for riboflavin.

Yikes. Just when the slow food movement is taking off, it turns out we need a slow-growing food movement too.

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

January 20, 2006

Bottle Battle

About yesterday's post on glass recycling -- some astute readers noticed that by focusing on recycling, I'd ignored more important priorities:  reducing the use of packaging, and reusing glass bottles where practical.  That's a fair enough critique.  But it did make me wonder:  what happened, exactly, to the practice of reusing glass bottles?  I can still remember drinking Coke from reusable bottles as a kid, but I rarely see that anymore. How come? And, more to the point, how would a system of reusable glass bottles stack up against recyclable glass and plastic containers?

On the first question -- what happened to reusable bottles? -- there's this recent article that sums up the situation nicely.  In a nutshell:

  • Beverage marketers prefer customized bottles, with a unique shape and feel for each brand; but a reusable bottle system is most cost-effective if all bottles are interchangeable.
  • Food stores don't like to take back bottles.  It's an administrative hassle and takes up time and space that they'd prefer to use for other purposes.
  • Consumers don't like to return bottles.  Given the option, they'd prefer to recycle a bottle than return it for reuse.

Obviously, those barriers aren't insurmountable by any means.  But they also don't seem to be uniquely characteristic of North American consumer culture.  Though Japan's economy is far more energy-efficient than ours, its reusable bottle system, which used to be extremely effective, now seems to be falling by the wayside.  (Sigh.)

Some of the same forces are at play in Japan as in the US -- beverage makers are introducing customized shapes and sizes of many drinks.  But perhaps just as importantly, Japan's beverage delivery services -- which would pick up empty bottles at the same time they delivered new ones -- have declined, with more people getting their drinks from supermarkets.  The decline of reusable bottles is just a side-effect of other economic and social forces.

Of course, there are public policies that could stimulate a resurgence of reusable bottles -- mandatory bottle deposits, requirements that stores accept reusable bottles, perhaps seed money for local bottlers to restart the reusable bottle system.  An uphill battle, to be sure -- but it could have its benefits.

Then again, before we consider that sort of thing we should take a careful look at the possible hidden costs of reinstating a returnable bottle system.  Consumers might avoid reusables; unreturned and broken bottles can eat into the energy savings of a reusable bottle system; it's even conceivable that a reusable bottle system could generate extra car trips, reducing the net-energy benefits. 

Of course, reusable bottles could still save energy, reduce waste, and create local jobs, compared with glass recycling, or even with lightweight recyclable plastics.  But I think we'd owe ourselves a careful accounting of just what these benefits might be before spending all the political capital needed to reboot the reusable bottle industry.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

January 19, 2006

Pain in the Glass

A random call from a reporter piqued my interest -- does recycling glass really save energy?  That is, after you take into consideration all of the energy spent to collect glass from people's homes, truck the collected glass to a distribution center, route it to a glass manufacturer, and then melt it down for reuse, does glass recycling really save anything, compared with using virgin materials?

I was actually fearing the worst here.  Obviously, given all of the energy costs of recycling glass, it's conceivable that it isn't a very good deal for the environment.  Plus the reporter was asking specifically because he'd heard some mention that the benefits of glass recycling were overblown.

As it turns out, though, I shouldn't have worried.  From just about every serious analysis I dug up, it seems that glass recycling really does save energy, compared with using virgin material.  Some handy citations: here, here, here, and this extensive lit. review (pdf).

But as with most things, there is a bit of a twist.

As several of the studies point out, glass recycling saves energy -- but much less energy per ton of glass than, say, recycling newspaper, steel, and aluminum. (See, e.g., page 31 of the lit. review.)  And because the theoretical energy savings of glass recycling appear to be relatively slim, it could mean that actual savings could depend on lots of devilish details -- how far the glass is shipped, how dispersed are the neighborhoods from which glass is collected, whether people make special car trips to recycling centers, etc. 

One of those devilish details -- covered here, about 3/4 of the way down the page -- is the type of furnace used to melt the recycled glass.  From the article...

[C]leaner-operating electric furnaces...use less energy and thus create less emissions than natural gas-powered furnaces, [but]  cannot use as much recycled glass, so they are not as efficient.

That is, by using an efficient, low-emissions furnace, you can actually decrease the overall energy efficiency of your glass recycling operation.  Darn.

And then there's this:  even though using recycled glass does appear to have a lower environmental cost than using virgin materials, the environmental cost is not zero.  Obviously--from an energy standpoint at least--it's better to drink water from the tap than water shipped in glass bottles, even if the bottles are made from recycled glass. 

But more to the point, it may be that buying a drink in a lightweight plastic bottle uses less energy than buying a beverage in container made from recycled glass -- even if the glass bottle is re-recycled, and the plastic bottle just gets thrown away after a single use.  This study from Israel (pdf) suggests as much -- though it points out that this is only true for certain types of plastics.  And in the same vein, this analysis from the Institute for Lifecycle Environmental Analysis suggests that paperboard cartons have a lower environmental cost than bottles made from recycled glass.

Of course, I'm no expert here.  All the information I have on the subject comes from a bit of googling -- and much of it seems to be at least a decade old.  But it looks like glass recycling really is worthwhile...and, simultaneously, that the gradual trend among beverage bottlers to replace glass with plastic is in all likelihood a good thing.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

January 13, 2006

The Backyard Bog

BogNot quite two months ago, my wife and I became home owners. We love it. But in additional to the pride of ownership, there are also the worries: Can we really afford this house? Should we get earthquake insurance? Why does a small lake appear in the backyard when it rains?

That last one has been on our minds a lot lately. After 26 consecutive days of rain (and counting) here in Seattle, there's a frighteningly large pool of water that has swamped the roses and turned the lawn into something resembling the Everglades. My dad jokingly suggested that we stock it with trout. But I have a better idea: I'm going to landscape my way out of the problem.

There's a growing movement in sustainable landscaping that emphasizes not only native plants and summer drought tolerance, but also managing water runoff during our many wet months. Lisa Stiffler over at Dateline Earth (the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's environmental blog) puts it thus:

The gist of it is this: By creating some very shallow depressions in your landscaping and planting them with hardy grasses, shrubs and trees in well-draining soil and covering the ground with a thin layer of mulch, you can catch and slow the flow of rainwater. This "rain garden" gives the stormwater a chance to soak into the dirt, helping trap pollutants and preventing the water from harming streams where salmon and other cool creatures chill out.

Lisa also includes a bevy of links to handy resources. Check them out.

In particular, I'm fascinated by some advice from the Puget Sound Action Team. They describe how one home owner in Shoreline, Washington--who was similarly cursed with saturated soils--created a bog garden. He built a retention pond and used a variety of plants to create a yard that can process an estimated 10,800 gallons of water a year on his quarter-acre lot. Total cost? Just $600.

Landscaping for water management helps ameliorate some of the environmental effects of impervious surfaces: less pollution runs off roofs and city streets. And during storms, less water deluges the city drain system that discharges untreated sewage into the Sound when it gets overloaded. Plus, there's another benefit: I won't be freaked out about my basement flooding.

Sounds like a no-brainer to me. I'm going to start digging just as soon as this rain stops.

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

January 10, 2006

Is Local the New Organic?

Editor's note: This is the first post from Jennifer Lamson, founding partner in Good Food Strategies LLC. Read her bio here.

Tomatoes_basket_1 Last week, the New York Times ran a feature by Marian Burros on New Seasons Markets, a grocery store chain in Portland that is banking on consumer interest in local, sustainable food--as opposed to simply organic.

The chain recently completed an inventory of the origins of its stock and have labeled everything grown in Oregon, Washington and Northern California “Homegrown.” They’ve already got 6 stores and 3 more on the way but remain adamantly opposed to expanding beyond the Portland suburbs--a testament to their commitment to being grounded in the local food economy.

People concerned about health, taste, and the environment have long sought out organic products. Once a cutting-edge concept for gourmets and health food junkies, organic is now mainstream, with many familiar major food brands launching organic product lines. I bought organic milk at a Seattle Safeway the other day that was packaged under Safeway's own new “O” label. Organics are the fastest growing segment of the food industry, with sales increasing by some 20 percent per year.

But, as the New York Times piece noted, organic alone is not the answer to the question of the fundamental role that food plays in our local economy, environment, food security, community vitality, or even health and enjoyment. I don’t know where that organic milk I bought from Safeway came from. I like the idea of sticking with my delivery from Smith Brothers dairy each week. Even though it’s not organic, there’s no growth hormone used and I am supporting the last of the independent dairy farms in my state, Washington.

We won’t be seeing New Seasons outside of the Portland area soon--but other Northwest areas are making progress on the local food front.

In the Seattle area, for example, cutting-edge projects are exploring food as a driver in the local economy and as a focal point for public policies ranging from health and nutrition to urban planning and even transportation.

Sustainable Seattle is launching a first-of-its-kind research project looking at how dollars spent on locally produced food affect the local economy as a counterpoint to the dollar spent on the average grocery item that has traveled 1500 miles to reach the consumer.

Washington State University’s King County Extension office is leading an effort to establish a food policy council for Seattle and King County that would bring together a broad spectrum of food system participants-- from farmers to hunger activists to grocery executives to land use experts -- to work jointly on solutions to current challenges like childhood obesity, disappearing farmland, and alarmingly high levels of hunger in our community. Leaders of that effort talked about how a food policy council could be a source of innovative, community-based solutions in an OpEd in the Seattle PI in December.

The local-food movement may even help us close the divide between rural and urban, red and blue. From the NY Times piece:

“Doc and Connie Hatfield, who founded the Country Natural Beef cooperative in 1986, said the co-op now has 70 ranchers, who raise beef on a vegetarian diet free of hormones, antibiotics and genetically modified feed. ‘Most of the ranchers are rural, religious, conservative Republicans,' Mr. Hatfield said. 'And most of the customers are urban, secular, liberal Democrats. When it comes to healthy land, healthy food, healthy people and healthy diets, those tags mean nothing. Urbanites are just as concerned about open spaces and healthy rural communities as people who live there. When ranchers get to the city, they realize rural areas don't have a corner on values. I think that's what we are most excited about.’"

I have always believed in the power of coming to the table together to hash out issues, find common ground, and be reminded of one another’s humanity, but I have most often thought about it in the very personal context of family and friends. In these times of bitter division, can coming to the table in celebration of delicious local grown bounty help remind us of our many shared values and experiences?

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October 24, 2005

How Green Is It?


Many of us in the Northwest have explored “green” options for consumer goods and services. Whether this means purchasing organic fruits from the farmers market or buying hybrid vehicles, we’d like to be healthier and reduce our ecological footprint.

But sorting out fact from fiction when buying green can be daunting. To help you clear up some of the confusion, NEW has put together a short list of some good online sources to answer questions you may have about, say, whether or not that eyeliner truly wasn’t tested on animals.

We’d also like to hear about guides and resources that you’ve found helpful in making the right choices—we can’t cover them all! Please comment below to share those sites with other readers.

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October 05, 2005

Pedestrian Safety in Numbers

Pedestrians: be safe, flock to Portland!

In the past 6 years pedestrian crash rates have fallen by 38 percent, according to a report on Oregon Public Broadcasting. The decline is especially impressive because there are likely more pedestrians today because more people (32 percent more) are using Portland's public transit. And similarly, while the number of bicyclist injuries has remained fairly constant, the total number of cyclists has gone up so that, on average, bicyclists are safer than they were 6 years ago.

Crash rates don't increase directly in line with walking and biking rates because there's safety in numbers. A study that looked at walking, biking, and crash rates in several cities found that individual pedestrians and cyclists are safer when traveling in cities with greater numbers of pedestrians and cyclists. The study's authors estimated that if the number of pedestrians were doubled, then the total number of pedestrian injuries would increase by only a third, but the rate of pedestrian injuries would actually decrease by a third. The theory is that the more often drivers encounter walkers, the more they expect to encounter them, and the more cautiously they drive.

Of course, infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists, as well as traffic regulations and customs, also greatly affect safety. I suspect that Portland's reductions are due to both safety in numbers and infrastructure improvements because the number of car crashes dropped as well. But it seems as though investments in pedestrian and cyclist safety could generate a feedback loop of benefits: if a city increases safety with better intersections and more bike lanes, then more people feel safe to walk and bike, so walking and biking become even safer, so more people feel safe to walk and bike. Eventually it would reach a plateau, of course, but we have a long way to go to match pedestrian rates in other countries.

Posted by Jessica Branom-Zwick | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack