February 01, 2006

Principles of the State of the Union Address

I hadn't intended to join the cacaphony of bloggers and pundits who are Monday-morning-quarterbacking the State of the Union address. But NEW's all-star board member, Laura Retzler, asked a great question last night that I've been puzzling over since: what's NEW's take on Bush's plan to end the nation's addiction to oil?

It later occurred to me--too late to answer Laura--that my reply should have been rather obvious to me. NEW is developing a concise statement of values and principles, that will orient and unify our research. Among these values are two that are especially germane to energy security: "make prices tell the truth" and "build complete, compact communities."

In his speech Bush called out technological innovation as the primary way to break the addiction. Certainly he's right that technology should play an important part in diversifying our energy portfolio--especially certain types of biofuels, new clean energy sources, and lighter-weight vehicles, for just a few examples that NEW promotes. Yet technological solutions may not be the surest path to ending our addiction.

That's where NEW's principles come into the picture.

"Making prices tell the truth" is especially important. The price of gasoline does reflects only the direct costs of extracting, refining, and distributing it, not the full costs that are externalized to society, such as air pollution, climate change, and even entanglement in unstable regions. By the same token, "free" parking often carries with it high costs, similarly externalized. With a smart restructuring of parking incentives, including parking taxes, there's reason to believe we can achieve substantial gains in both energy efficiency and conservation.

Another of the principles, "build complete, compact communities," would improve home energy consumption and render driving, which has high energy demands, optional or even irrelevant for many people. We already know that compact urban development with good transit and pedestrian alternatives yields dramatic reductions in energy need, even while it boosts health for residents.

NEW's principles may not point to flashy promises of zero-pollution cars or safe nuclear energy. (And they may not come with strings attached to big subsidies.) But they point to hidden levers in our economy and society--small tweaks that can yield outsize results for energy security.

So that's may belated reply, Laura. Thanks for setting me to thinking about this.


By the way, here's the full text of Bush's remarks on energy last night:

Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy. Here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world.

The best way to break this addiction is through technology. Since 2001, we have spent nearly $10 billion to develop cleaner, cheaper, more reliable alternative energy sources, and we are on the threshold of incredible advances. So tonight, I announce the Advanced Energy Initiative, a 22 percent increase in clean-energy research at the Department of Energy, to push for breakthroughs in two vital areas. To change how we power our homes and offices, we will invest more in zero-emission coal-fired plants, revolutionary solar and wind technologies, and clean, safe nuclear energy.

We must also change how we power our automobiles. We will increase our research in better batteries for hybrid and electric cars, and in pollution-free cars that run on hydrogen. We will also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn but from wood chips, stalks or switch grass. Our goal is to make this new kind of ethanol practical and competitive within six years. Breakthroughs on this and other new technologies will help us reach another great goal: to replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025. By applying the talent and technology of America, this country can dramatically improve our environment, move beyond a petroleum-based economy and make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past.

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January 25, 2006

Slim City

New studies of King County, Washington find that sprawl is linked to dirtier air and bigger bellies. Walkable neighborhoods (those places with higher residential density, more street connections, and nearby to shops, schools, and parks) appear to be healthier for residents and less damaging to air quality--even when taking into account age, income, education and ethnicity.

A few key findings (liberally excerpted from the full coverage in the Seattle Times):

  • On average the Body Mass Index — a measure of height and weight — of residents of the more walkable neighborhoods was lower, and they were more likely to get 30 minutes of daily exercise.
  • People who lived and worked in more walkable neighborhoods produced fewer pollutants associated with smog.
  • A 5 percent increase in a neighborhood's walkability index was associated with a 0.23-point drop in Body Mass Index. Bigger changes in a neighborhood's walkability would be expected to produce greater differences in weight.

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December 19, 2005

All I Want for Christmas is a Sidewalk

It's the most dangerous time of year to be a pedestrian or a bicyclist: short days mean commutes in the dark, overcast weather obscures pedestrians even during daylight, and rain and snow increase the stopping distance for both drivers and cyclists. But as the Seattle Times reports, better infrastructure, such as in Washington's recently updated wish list of pedestrian and cyclist projects, can make walking and biking both safer and more convenient -- not just in wintertime, but year round.

Periodically King County compiles reports on the causes and situations surrounding pedestrian deaths, most recently for the years 2000 through 2003. In short, most fatalities occur when pedestrians either (a) do not follow traffic regulations, and/or (b) are impaired by age (old or young) or alcohol.

This suggests two things to me. First, that walking is fairly safe if you are a sober, law-abiding adult, especially if you have a safe place to walk. But in King County nearly 13 percent of the pedestrians were hit walking on a road without a sidewalk. And while people over the age of 60 made up one out of every four deaths, most were following the law and crossing in a crosswalk. With limited mobility, seniors often take more time to cross, so changes such as longer signal times and better lighting at crosswalks can make a big difference.

Second, because responsible walking is not as dangerous, building safer places to walk, and advertising them, could not only reduce pedestrian fatalities, but also encourage more walking. (And as we've reported before, there seems to be safety in numbers for pedestrians -- that is, the more pedestrians there are on the streets, the lower the odds that they'll be struck by a car.)

Reading this and other pedestrian fatality and safety studies, it seems to me that, yes, pedestrians need to be visible, follow the law, and look well before crossing the street, but they also need a decent infrastructure for walking -- including sidewalks, bike paths, streetlights, and signaled street crossings. Other countries with much higher pedestrian rates also have much lower fatality rates. We can do better, too.

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November 15, 2005

Sloth: Perhaps not a sin, but still deadly

Today's Seattle Times summarizes the findings of a long-term study of how exercise improves health:

People who engaged in moderate activity — the equivalent of walking for 30 minutes a day for five days a week — lived about 1.3 to 1.5 years longer than those who were less active. Those who took on more intense exercise — the equivalent of running half an hour a day for five days every week — extended their lives by about 3.5 to 3.7 years, the researchers found.

In other words, sloth kills, and even moderate exercise can lead to a longer, healthier life.  Which is something to keep in mind next time you're in the market for a place to live -- choosing a home where it's as convenient to walk to the store as to drive could actually save your life.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

November 11, 2005

Portland, Rethunk

Interesting stuff in today's "Rethinking Portland" issue of the Portland Tribune. The Trib explains the rationale for the special series thus:

For decades, Portland has been viewed across the nation as an icon of livability and progressiveness, a community that introduced the nation to regional planning and prevention of big city sprawl, a steward of the environment and a proponent of diverse transportation systems, including light rail.

But as we take stock of Portland today, and look forward, we are compelled to say there is much that we urgently need to improve upon.

Seems about right to me -- there's always room for improvement, no matter how good your national reputation.  Indeed (as we discussed in this book) despite Portland's reputation for preventing sprawl, it's trailing far, far behind its northern neighber, Vancouver, BC.

Two articles in the series stood out for me.  First, Jim Redden reminds us that, as assiduously as our government measures economic indicators like GDP, city officials still flying blind when it comes to understanding how middle-income Portland residents are faring.  The US Census bureau estimated that median income for a family of four in Portland was $40,783; the US Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that it was $67,900.  Part of the difference can be explained by differing geographies; the HUD figure seems to cover the Portland suburbs, while the Census seems to cover just Portland proper.  Still, it seems odd that, given all the resources devoted to measuring aggregate economic output, Portland city officials need to convene blue ribbon panels of economists just to figure out how much the middle class earns.

Second, Todd Murphy agonizes about the decision to raise his kids in Portland, or to head to the suburbs.  Obviously, it's not an easy choice; even for someone who's spent his life in the city, there are plenty of reasons to find the suburbs an attractive place for a family. But one of Murphy's biggest concerns is safety -- particularly, that there's violent crime in a city that you just don't find in the suburbs. 

But what Murphy doesn't consider in the article is the risk of car crashes:  the risk of a fatal traffic accident is roughly proportional to the number of miles you drive.  So people who live in compact neighborhoods are generally at lower risk of dying in a car crash, whether as driver, passenger, or pedestrian, than people who live in car-dependent suburbs. I don't know about Portland in particular, but this study suggests that, when you combine the risk of dying in a car crash with the risk of being killed by a stranger, central cities tend to be safer than far-flung exurbs.

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November 09, 2005

My Bad

Whoops: it looks like I got much of this post simply wrong. 

To recap, Brookings Institution scholar Margy Waller wrote an article in the Washington Monthly promoting car ownership for the working poor (which strikes me as reasonable, on balance), and also proposing a $100 billion annual federal tax credit to subsidize commuting costs (which stuck me as wrong-headed).

But one of the reasons I so strongly disliked Waller's commuting subsidy was that I assumed -- apparently wrongly -- that she was proposing that more expensive commutes be given bigger subsidies.  That, in my view, would create all kinds of perverse incentives, the worst of which would be to subsidize sprawl, by giving people who live in the most inaccessible locations, with the longest, highest-cost commutes, the biggest payouts.

But Ms. Waller herself now informs me that, while it wasn't spelled out in her Washington Monthly article that floated the idea, it was never her intent to link the amount of the tax credit to the cost of commuting.  Rather, people with any commuting costs would be eligible for the exact same credit.  So, if you have a choice between a cheaper commute on transit, and a more expensive one in a car, you can choose the cheap commute and pocket the rest of the tax credit as a bonus.

That seems a lot more reasonable than I first thought, as it doesn't exclusively favor longer and more expensive commutes.  So even though I'm still quite cool to the idea, I take back what I said about it being nutty.  Sorry, Margy!

There are still plenty of reasons to be skeptical about a commuting tax credit, though.

First, it clearly favors motorized vs. nonmotorized commutes -- that is, you'd have to spend money on your commute in order to qualify for the credit.  So folks who are lucky enough to be able to walk to work get nothing; folks who bus or drive get a credit.  This is essentially begging people to rack up commuting costs, even if they don't need them.  It's also asking them not to walk for transportation -- which studies now suggest is a contributing factor in the twin epidemics of obesity and physical inactivity.

Second, it still seems strange to me to focus on subsidizing commuting costs, rather than raising income generally.  That is, if I had to choose between a generalized earned income tax credit (one that helps all low-income workers, not just those with commuting costs) and a tax credit focused specificially on commuting costs, I'd prefer the former.  As to the argument that folks with young children really need a car -- well, not all low-income folks have kids.  And some of those who do might prefer to use a tax credit for child care and a short commute, or on a home near convenient transit, rather than spending (or wasting) some of the tax credit on a car.  I'd prefer to let them decide what to do with their money.

And third, this kind of proposal seems to be just the sort of thing that could get mangled in the political process.  Sure, the original proposal wouldn't favor longer commutes.  But after it gets through the rural-dominated US Senate -- not to mention the auto-industry and oil lobbies -- perhaps it would.

In the end, if I had to spend $100 billion a year on a program to lift the prospects of low- and middle-income Americans, I'm not sure that this is the way I'd do it.  But it's probably not as terrible an idea as I thought at first.

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October 14, 2005

A Beacon in the Smog

I doubt that most residents of leafy suburbs paid a lot of attention to air quality when they chose their homes.  But it’s not hard to believe that, when suburban commuters return home from work each night, they breathe a little easier in the belief that they’ve escaped the smog and fumes of the city.

Only, maybe they haven’t.  At least, not in the greater Puget Sound, anyway.

The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency maintains a network of air monitoring stations throughout the region.  Some are in central Seattle, some in smaller cities, and some in suburbs and rural locations.  And--perhaps surprisingly--there doesn’t appear to be a decisive air quality advantage to living in the suburbs.  (See this pdf for more details.)

Or, to be a little more accurate:  air quality tends to be both highly variable and very localized.  Monitoring stations in the neighborhoods surrounding Seattle’s downtown tend to report that the air is pretty clean -– cleaner, in some cases, than at more suburban monitoring stations in Bellevue, Lynnwood, or Lake Forest Park.  On the other hand, the air in Seattle’s industrial zones can be pretty dirty; but then again, so can the air in Kent and Marysville.

The Beacon Hill monitoring station, a mile or so southeast of downtown Seattle, is worth a special mention. 

The Beacon Hill neighborhood is just to the east (i.e., downwind) of I-5, the heavily trafficked West Seattle Bridge, and the Port of Seattle; to the north it's bordered by I-90.  Given its location, you might expect the air quality on Beacon Hill to be pretty bad.  In fact, if you had to pick one residential neighborhood in Seattle that’s likely to have outdoor air quality problems, Beacon Hill might well be it.

But Beacon Hill’s air is, surprisingly, pretty clean. For fine particulate matter (i.e., soot, largely from diesel vehicles), it does moderately well: 3rd best of 7 regional monitoring stations by one measure, 7th of 16 by another, best among 5 by yet another.  It has less ozone than any other monitoring station in the region (not surprisingly, as concentrations of ground-level ozone are typically lower in city centers than in leafy suburbs and exurbs).  And its carbon monoxide levels were the lowest among 7 stations.  I'm not sure why Beacon Hill does as well as it does -- perhaps it's just a function of altitude and prevailing wind patterns. But whatever the reason, it's good news for the people who live there.

Clearly, the monitoring station results don't offer definitive proof that Beacon Hill residents have nothing to worry about from their air.  But it does mean that a move from Beacon Hill to, say, Lynwood or Bothell or Lake Forest Park or Marysville—all suburban locations—won’t necessarily buy cleaner air.

Three more points are worth mentioning here.  First, as we mentioned in this post, the air in your car is typically among the worst you’ll breathe all day.  Second, for most pollutants, indoor air is more polluted than outdoor air –- and most people spend 90% or more of their time indoors.  And third, outdoor air quality seems to have improved pretty substantially since the early 1980s; King County has had no “unhealthy” air quality days since 1999, and only 31 days in 6 years in which the air has been “unhealthy for sensitive groups.”  That’s not a perfect record, obviously, but it does represent a substantial improvement from where we once were.

To me, these facts suggest that at this point improving the air that you breathe depends, in large measure, on keeping yourself off the highway, and keeping hazardous products out of your home.  Obviously, clean outdoor air matters too -– it’s just that living in the suburbs doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you’ll get it.

Update:  I should mention that "A Beacon In The  Smog" is, or at least was, the official tag line of Grist Magazine.  Plagiarism, like imitation, is a sincere form of flattery.

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September 15, 2005

King of Sprawl

Does sprawl kill?  Looks like it.  This study found that people who live in sprawling counties -- places with low population densities and poorly connected street grids, and with rigid segregation between stores, businesses and residences -- are more likely to die in a car crash. 

Apparently, living in the sort of place where you can't get anywhere without a car makes you drive more.  And people who drive more tend to crash more.  (When you put it that way, social science seems pretty simple, no?)

But, of course, the question remains:  how much?  How much more accident risk do residents of sprawling places really face? The answer is surprisingly straightforward: according to the model developed by the study's authors, residents of Washington's King County (relatively compact and urban) should face a 20 percent lower risk of getting in a car crash than the people who live in neighboring Snohomish County (relatively sprawling).

That's the theory at least.  And in this case, the theory matches up pretty closely with reality.  Over the last few decades, the age-adjusted traffic fatality rate in King County has averaged about 20 percent lower than the rate in Snohomish.  (See table E-8, here.)

Or, said another way: if King County sprawled like Snohomish, about 800 additional King County residents would have died in car crashes since 1980.  And since the National Safety Council estimates that each traffic fatality is associated with 54 non-fatal injuries, King County residents also avoided more than 40,000 injuries, just because of how its urban and suburban areas are laid out.

Now, just imagine how many fatalities could have been avoided if King County looked like greater Vancouver, BC.

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Charming 3-bedroom, 2 bath with only 5 pounds of weight gain a year

Obesity has many causes, but current research indicates that sprawl may play a part. So far, researchers have concluded that people who live in sprawling, car-dependent neighborhoods are more likely to be obese, while people who live in walkable neighborhoods are apt to do more walking. But researchers still trying to tease out cause and effect: do walkable neighborhoods encourage people to walk? Or do people who like to walk move to walkable neighborhoods? I suspect it is both.

However, one recently study claims that sprawl doesn't, in fact, cause obesity. The authors, who base their findings on a complex theoretical model, don't dispute that sprawl and obesity are linked. But they claim that people who move to sprawling neighborhoods are simply making a more-or-less conscious choice to put on more weight:

"[R]esidents are willing to accept locations that result in weight gain because they face lower housing prices and can purchase more housing."

In other words, people buying a house don't mind putting on a few extra pounds in order to get the house they want.

But here's the catch: the link between sprawl and obesity just isn't that widely known. Researchers have just been started exploring these connections over the last few years; the literature is growing, but it's still in its infancy. So it's hard to imagine that most home-buyers, over the last several decades, were weighing the concrete effects of neighborhood design on their health. How could they, when the information just didn't exist?

While I haven't worked through the entire model line-by-line, I also have some quibbles with the methods. As with any theoretical model, it's based on a host of assumptions.  And one of them -- that calorie consumption increases as income increases -- clearly poses problems. As Clark blogged about a while ago, food is really cheap, and cheapest foods are the most calorie dense (think greasy fast food). So there's ample reason to believe that calorie consumption could actually increase as income goes down. 

Theory can be very useful; and there may well be some truth to the notion that people who don't like exercise don't mind living in places that discourage walking. But in this case, only studies that track actual people over time as they move among actual neighborhoods will yield reliable answers.

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September 02, 2005

Friends for Life

There's no question that our social environments help determine how healthy we are. In fact, I have now in front of me a small mountain of studies to that effect. Rather than bore you with the particulars of their findings, I'll simply summarize this way: study after study shows that close social relationships--a spouse, loved one, or a close friend--help people live longer.

Interestingly, social bonds don't appear to prevent the onset of a disease. There's no association, for instance, between social isolation and sudden cardiac death. But for survivors of a life-threatening event or disease, social connectedness significantly increases average longevity and functioning. One study even suggests that the effect of social isolation "is comparable to the effect of cigarette smoking on total mortality reported in some studies." 

In other words, close relations with friends and family are really, really good for your health.  Or--stated in the converse--loneliness kills.

Perhaps more intriguing, an emerging body of research is pointing out that suburban sprawl is an impediment to social networks. Does sprawl erode social networks which are critical for health? Is sprawl bad for our health because it diminishes our personal relationships? Well, that's where things get confusing.

I've already aired my skepticism that sprawl erodes social capital. (Or more precisely, I'm skeptical that the existing research proves it.) But for the moment, I'll abandon my skepticism and go along with the multitude of voices arguing that sprawl is bad for social capital. And indeed, there is some compelling research showing that traditional city neighborhoods are better at fostering incidental contact between neighbors and promoting loose associations that may be important for well functioning civil society and even democracy. Plus, it's clear that declining social capital over the last several decades has been coincident with ever-more dispersed suburbs and highways.

One might be tempted to conclude that if sprawl is bad for social capital (which is good for health), then sprawl must also be bad for health. One would even have plenty of company among researchers who have claimed just that. But one would still have to convince me. Here's why.

My reading of the available literature suggests that there's a pervasive equivocation at work. The term "social capital" (or, variously "social networks" or "social ties") is used in at least two different ways. In one sense the term(s) refers to informal neighborhood associations, participation in civic life, or belonging to a church or community group. I'll call this "loose social capital." In the other sense, the term(s) means the presence of close supportive individuals, such as a spouse. I'll call this "tight social capital."

The research makes it clear that tight social capital is good for health, but I haven't heard of anyone arguing that sprawl reduces tight social capital. Moreover it's not at all clear that loose social capital--the kind that is allegedly eroded by sprawl--has anything at all to do with health outcomes. But because the literature's terminology for both tight and loose social connections are the same--social capital--it's easy to assume that they are the same thing and have the same effects.

Now, admittedly, there is some evidence to suggest that people with more friends are healthier (and this is especially true for men for some reason). But that, of course, doesn't mean that having friends makes you healthier. And it's also true that at least one study shows that too many social connections can actually be inimical to health--interpersonal conflicts cause stress-related diseases (and, again, this is especially true for men for some reason).

I do think there's probably a link here--that is, a link from sprawl to loose social capital to health--but I'm not quite convinced yet. The best research I've seen is from Ichiro Kawachi, a Harvard researcher. On a state-by-state basis he examined the results of two simple questions that have been found to be closely correlated with loose social capital---Do you think most people can't be trusted? and Do you think most people would take advantage of you if given the chance?

States where people thought they couldn't trust others also had worse rates of self-reported health. And states where people felt that others would take advantage of them had higher mortality rates. So Kawachi's study makes me think that there must be some connection between loose social capital and health. And if sprawl does indeed weakens loose social capital, then it may be to blame for worse health outcomes. I'm hoping there's more research emerging that will document these connections, if they exist. In the meantime, I'm also hoping not to find more research that seems to equivocate between loose and tight social capital.

Postscript: In a curious though unrelated side note, one study found that among spouses, husbands had a higher risk of depression if their wives suffered a cognitive disability. On the other hand, if their husbands suffered a cognitive disability, wives were at no greater risk for depression. I'm not really sure what to make of that.

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