Posts Tagged ‘transportation’

When you’re in a hole, start digging?

Tuesday, June 9th, 2009

Early this year I wrote a post based on a quote from John Maynard Keynes, the famous British economist of the last century. Keynes had an idea about filling a hole with bottles filled with money, covering the hole over with dirt and then selling permits to dig out the bottles. His argument was that during an economic downturn the best thing was to spend, even if the spending seemed to contradict common sense.

Last week I wrote about the falling rate of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the United States and the Northwest. The post goes into a bit of detail about the numbers and asks the question, “Why invest huge dollars in capital infrastructure for new ways to carry cars?”

It’s far from certain what the downturn in VMT means. Part of it is attributable to last year’s price spike in oil and gas prices. But when you look at gasoline consumption (down), VMT (down) and car sales (down) you can’t help but wonder why we’re digging a big hole along the waterfront and filling it with cars. Does a tunnel that will cost billions of dollars still make sense?

Could the possibility that we are significantly changing our driving habits make Keynes’ idea more attractive?

Next bus: 5 minutes

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

Way back in 2002, I lived in an apartment in East Portland just off Burnside Street. At first, I thought the proximity to Burnside would be kind of a bummer (the nearby Sandy Hut notwithstanding). But after I few days, I realized that my location meant I would never need a bus schedule again. That’s because I could see the bus stop’s digital display from my apartment hallway. Once it read “4 minutes,” it was time for me to grab my bag and head out the door.

The best bus schedules are those that tell you when the bus will actually be there, and a printed schedule, even if its online, isn’t always a good place to find that information. Does such a thing really matter? Many people who ride the bus are minutes from their stop, and they don’t want to stand out in the rain inhaling gas fumes for five minutes. And seeing a line of people in the rain waiting for their bus and inhaling gas fumes definitely isn’t going to get other people out of their cars.

But if you live in Seattle rather than Portland, and you ride the bus, you do have options. Some of you might already know about My Bus, but I only recently realized it was a real thing and not some mock-up. Choose your bus number and stop location, or search by neighborhood to see when buses are likely to arrive. It also tells you when the last bus left, so you can track your loved ones or, if you’re feeling really wonky, do some calculations on whether the 7:57 is consistently so late that you might as well just stick with the 8:13 and squeeze in some extra minutes of sleep.

The best part: It looks like they actually have more stops listed than on Metro’s site. Sometimes, when you’re taking an unfamiliar route, it’s nice to know where the actual stops will be rather than just guessing based on a route map or having to use the Trip Planner just to find out where the stops are.

They’ve got apps for web-enabled phones and texting options, too. I’m going to start using it and see how it goes. If anyone’s already using mybus, let me know if you’re really spending less time standing in the rain.

A reader also alerts me to the presence of One Bus Away, though I haven’t had much chance to explore that yet.  It has a call-in, SMS and iPhone-special version options.

Oh, and if you plan to stay in Seattle for a few more years, Metro plans to have real-time displays on its five Rapid Ride routes, starting in 2010 from Federal Way to Tukwila. Ballard and West Seattle routes will come online a few years later…

More than sustainability

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

Sustainability means doing the minimum necessary to avoid ecological or societal trauma, whether for one location or ecosystem, or worldwide. In other words, it’s a half-measure.

People like half-measures. Public discussions of sustainability tend to reflect giving people everything they already have, but in less-wasteful formats. We hear more about hybrids than encouraging people to have fewer cars, more about responsible forestry than about using less wood, and more about recycling than about ”reducing” or “reusing.”

That’s a start, and plenty for some people, but perhaps we need to work harder on the big stuff too.

Like density. We’re improving a bit, but we still strictly limit density in this region, making it more expensive than necessary (through bonus fees, additional process, lack of sites zoned higher than what’s already there, etc.) and therefore reducing its market share, which in turn adds to sprawl. Meanwhile, denser construction brings huge efficiencies in energy, materials, and land use, due to factors such as shared walls and reduced commute distances. (Transportation is sometimes forgotten in analyses of energy use!)

The trend toward smaller homes (or plateau?) is encouraging. Smaller homes use less materials and energy to build, use less energy to heat, cool, and light (all else being equal), and don’t leave so much room to fill with unneeded stuff. The trend toward multifamily helps for similar reasons, plus multifamily residents have the option of simply deleting the astonishing array of tools and materials often kept by house residents, from paint to edgers to four kinds of shovel.

It’s great that we’re focusing on transit, because transit benefits energy use, land-use, runoff, the need for parking infrastructure, and so on compared to driving. Biking and walking are even better. Density automatically makes all of these modes more viable. Of course we still don’t put our policies where our mouth is on pedestrian issues, with many “no crossing” points even in our most urban districts, our lax oversight of speeding and red light running, and so on.

It’s disgusting what’s happening with the global warming “debate.” In fact it’s a fake debate kept alive by certain industries and those who believe them. We’re exactly where the cigarette “debate” was a couple decades ago. Scientists agree that humans are a contributor to the problem, as much as they agree about anything, except the corrupt (bought) ones and a small number of honest devil’s advocates. The cigarette deniers are now seen as having contributed to countless deaths (and they still troll online bulletin boards, denying everything!). In the coming decades the global warming deniers will be reviled in the same way for the same reason. I’ll applaud any leadership Obama might provide on this issue, and we can all act locally as well, as an industry adding to the strides we’ve made, as a region with policy, and as individuals.

Tunneling our way to recovery

Friday, January 9th, 2009

While reading about Obama’s plans to pull the economy out of a nose dive, I happened upon this quote from John Maynard Keynes:

“If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with bank-notes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coal-mines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again (the right to do so being obtained, of course, by tendering for leases of the note-bearing territory), there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of repercussions, the real income of the community, and its capital wealth, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is.”

How long will it be before local officials start touting the tunnel option as a way of boosting the local economy by creating jobs?  The trouble with Obama’s infrastructure plan is that it seems to significantly rely on projects like replacing the viaduct that we don’t need and shouldn’t build.

Now is the time for us to lean into the fact that automakers are facing a downturn in demand for their product.  Why would we keep building infrastructure for single occupancy vehicles?

So my half-serious proposal is we go forward with the tunnel option to replace the viaduct.  Once we’ve dug out the tunnel, we bury bottles with $100 bills, cover it back up and sell the rights to dig them up.  That way, we get the benefits without the downside of more infrastructure for something we are trying to discourage.  So grab a shovel, and let’s start digging!

Brother, can you spare a paradigm?

Monday, December 29th, 2008

Aubrey Cohen’s Friday piece on the Seattle housing market got me thinking about paradigm shifts. The shift from faxes to e-mail, for example, took more than a decade. The internet has fundamentally changed business and everyday life –but slowly.

In just the last year, however, we’ve seen collapse of the stock and real estate market, decreases in home values, multiple bank failures (including Washington Mutual) and the potential bankruptcy of the big 3 American automakers.

The typical solution is to loosen rules and allow more borrowing. Credit is the fuel of innovation, driving interest rates lower, inspiring investment, job creation and expansion of the market. But easy money is what got us into this mess in the first place.

And we are in a liquidity trap. Rates can’t go any lower than zero. Despite a bail out, banks are sitting on their cash until things become more stable. Even dropping cash from a helicopter may not inspire spending.

A Keynesian-Obama-New Deal based on infrastructure upgrades might reduce unemployment, but then what? In spite of the many make-work infrastructure projects undertaken by the New Deal, there was the recession of 1938 when the projects were done. Put a shovel in my hand, but will I buy a big screen television? It wasn’t until World War II broke out that that depression ended.

The solutions (and the problems) of the past aren’t working. Since the seventies, taming inflation, not full employment, was the objective of central banks. Ironically, now we are trying to get inflation going with little luck.

Perhaps in 2009 we’ll begin to see a new paradigm, if there is one, take shape.

An economy built on single family homes filled with furniture, appliances and a car out front, all bought with credit, may disappear.

Considering all this, do we really need a rebuilt viaduct? And doesn’t this change our views about affordable home ownership? What does sustainability look like with falling demand for oil and automobiles? Can we cope with getting what we’ve asked for all these years: a less car-dependent culture living within its means in compact communities? Maybe that is the scariest thing of all.

They’re driving me crazy

Monday, October 13th, 2008

When drivers’ manners and safety are discussed, it’s generally about their impacts on each other. But ask anyone who walks – the whims of drivers have huge effects on pedestrians.

I admit to some bias as a constant pedestrian and non-driver. To be honest, I’m pissed.

Typical scene at Second & Spring

It’s not just the big stuff like red-light runners, speeders, and drivers that turn without looking right. All of those can kill or maim pedestrians. Why offenders are allowed to keep their licenses is a mystery.

It’s also the subtle rudeness. My special pet peeve is cars that edge into crosswalks at red lights. This doesn’t endanger (necessarily) but still manages to convey…that the driver doesn’t care about others, that they aren’t qualified to drive, that cars are more important, who knows.

For 20 years, my response has been to touch every car in every crosswalk. Some drivers don’t like that, which is exactly the point. If they look like they might turn without looking, they get a couple taps on the hood. They like that even less, but maybe they’ll think twice next time.

Cars parked on sidewalks are equally annoying. Again, they’re (usually) not safety hazards, except when they force people to walk in traffic, but aside from some rare scenarios (giving birth perhaps?) it’s always rude. Architects are well-schooled in symbolism – maybe one of you can weigh in here.

Drivers don’t want pedestrians to take over lanes of Fourth Avenue. And we don’t plan to — it would be both dangerous and rude, as well as illegal. It goes both ways.

P.S. We’ve done a good job cracking down on drunk drivers. But isn’t rude and dangerous driving just as bad when the driver isn’t drunk?

P.S.2 Thanks to anyone who drives with pedestrians in mind.