Cities

Don't encourage the curmudgeon

Seattle Times editor wants to stick it to bicyclists

My wife snipped an editorial out of the Seattle Times for my perusal a couple of weeks ago. James Vesely, the opinion page editor, thinks that Seattle bicyclists should be taxed and licensed. My wife, a bleeding-heart liberal who never saw a tax she didn't like, was incensed that the Times editorial page editor would waste print space on such a petty issue.

Get a Zip

Zipcar partners with city of Seattle, opens downtown location

Some 10,500 employees of the City of Seattle will now have access to a car at the office for personal errands or business trips, thanks to a new partnership with car-sharing provider Zipcar. Part of the city's Commute Trip Reduction effort, the Zipcar partnership is aimed at "encouraging more climate-friendly commutes," says Mayor Greg Nickels (D), because employees will be able to walk, bike, or take mass transit to work without worrying whether they'll need to, ahem, zip off to an appointment. Within a 10-block radius of City Hall, there are more than 60 Zipcars parked at curbs and in garages. City employees (and other Zipcar members) can reserve these vehicles and then take them out for several hours, or even a whole day, returning them to their original parking spot. Zipcar then takes care of all maintenance, insurance, and fuel for the vehicles. And for naysayers who think this will just encourage people to drive around unnecessarily, a 2008 survey of Seattle Zipcar members suggests otherwise, with half of the respondents saying they've increased their public transit usage since joining. And national surveys indicate that 50 percent of members sell their car or avoid buying one in the first place, reducing vehicle miles by almost 40 percent. For those of you in Seattle, Zipcar is opening up a storefront-style office downtown (in the old Department of Licensing office, actually). They're hosting an open house today, and if you stop by before 5 p.m., you can join Zipcar for no annual fee (a savings of $50).

The Transit Authority: A looming crisis

Transit budget cuts are disasters in the making

Here is the lowdown: Transit fares generally don't cover operating expenses. Transit systems do not, unfortunately, turn a profit. In many conservative circles, this is considered a damning indictment of the whole idea of public transit -- which is itself a damning indictment of the analytical powers of the guilty conservatives. We should expect those who benefit from a technology to pay for it. This is the basic idea behind a market economy -- people aren't in the habit of giving away something for nothing, and the best way to allocate scarce resources is to let buyers and sellers agree upon a price, which is then paid by the buyer who, we expect, will benefit from the purchase. But sometimes, when a buyer decides to spend money on a good or service, other people benefit as well. If I build an exceptionally attractive house in a neighborhood, I benefit, but so too do my neighbors, who get to look at the house and whose own homes may appreciate thanks to their location in what is now a more attractive neighborhood. When I pay college tuition and get a degree, I benefit, but so too do future colleagues, who will enjoy greater success as part of a highly educated labor pool. If government does nothing in such situations, then we will get the level of attractive homes or college educations that suits the direct beneficiaries of such investments -- but that doesn't mean that we have provided the number that maximizes the benefit to society as a whole.

Sims city

Obama taps green Seattle-area leader as deputy secretary of HUD

Ron Sims. The Obama administration has tapped Ron Sims, the county executive of King County, Wash., to serve as deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Sims has earned a national reputation for his environmental work in the county, which includes Seattle (home of the Grist mothership). Sims, whom the Obama team called “a visionary urban leader,” will manage HUD’s day-to-day operations and its $39 billion annual operating budget. Urbanists are hoping for big, green things from this department under Obama and HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan. The addition of Sims is seen as another good sign. …

The potential of high-speed rail

Restructuring the U.S. transport system

Aside from the overriding need to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to stabilize climate, there are several other compelling reasons for countries everywhere to restructure their transport systems, including the need to prepare for falling oil production, to alleviate traffic congestion, and to reduce air pollution. The U.S. car-centered transportation model, with three cars for every four people, that much of the world aspires to will not likely be viable over the long term even for the United States, much less for everywhere else. The shape of future transportation systems centers around the changing role of the automobile. This in turn is being influenced by the transition from a predominantly rural global society to a largely urban one. By 2020 close to 55 percent of us will be living in cities, where the role of cars is diminishing. In Europe, where this process is well along, car sales in almost every country have peaked and are falling. With world oil output close to peaking, there will not be enough economically recoverable oil to support a world fleet expansion along U.S. lines or, indeed, to sustain the U.S. fleet. Oil shocks are now a major security risk. The United States, where 88 percent of the 133 million working people travels to work by car, is dangerously vulnerable. Beyond the desire to stabilize climate, drivers almost everywhere are facing gridlock and worsening congestion that are raising both frustration and the cost of doing business. In the United States, the average commuting time for workers has increased steadily since the early 1980s. The automobile promised mobility, but after a point its growing numbers in an increasingly urbanized world offer only the opposite: immobility. While the future of transportation in cities lies with a mix of light rail, buses, bicycles, cars, and walking, the future of intercity travel over distances of 500 miles or less belongs to high-speed trains. Japan, with its high-speed bullet trains, has pioneered this mode of travel. Operating at speeds up to 190 miles per hour, Japan's bullet trains carry almost a million passengers a day. On some of the heavily used intercity high-speed rail lines, trains depart every three minutes. Beginning in 1964 with the 322-mile line from Tokyo to Osaka, Japan's high-speed rail network now stretches for 1,360 miles, linking nearly all its major cities. One of the most heavily traveled links is the original line between Tokyo and Osaka, where the bullet trains carry 117,000 passengers a day. The transit time of two hours and 30 minutes between the two cities compares with a driving time of eight hours. High-speed trains save time as well as energy. Although Japan's bullet trains have carried billions of passengers over 40 years at high speeds, there has not been a single casualty. Late arrivals average 6 seconds. If we were selecting seven wonders of the modern world, Japan's high-speed rail system surely would be among them.

Gender bias in commuting

Transportation policy and the working married woman

Progressives in favor of congestion pricing on highways and in central cities tend to argue for those policies on progressive grounds (shock!) -- that such pricing systems reduce emissions, improve air quality, and fund transit improvements, which benefit lower- and middle-income households. Those are all nice benefits to congestion pricing programs, but we shouldn't neglect the congestion reduction function. Congestion costs America some $80 billion per year, in the form of lost time and wasted fuel. And as it turns out, commutes extended by congestion have other effects, as well: There is a strong empirical evidence demonstrating that labor force participation rates of married women are negatively correlated with commuting time. What is more, the analysis shows that metropolitan areas which experienced relatively large increases in average commuting time between 1980 and 2000 also had slower growth of labor force participation of married women. Long commutes are typically associated with dense cities like New York, but in recent decades, congestion has grown fastest in places with rapid exurban growth -- like Dallas, Riverside (California), San Diego, and Washington, D.C.

Images of an evolving world by artist Don Simon

These images are from a series of drawings titled “Unnaturalism” by artist Don Simon. His work examines the impact of industrialization and sprawl on ecosystems. From his artist statement: “Throughout history, particularly since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, mankind has been less than kind to our cohabitants on the planet. We build, produce, and consume with little or no regard to the impact it has on the environment. It is the nature of nature to adapt and evolve in order to survive, and we are forcing other species to deal with compromised, damaged, or destroyed ecosystems. “This series of …

Buy a condo, get a Smart car!

Asheville developers go big with eco, at the worst time ever

I've just stumbled across this supremely bold (or foolish) eco-project, and I intend to follow it. Background: It's a proposed green condo complex with a green roof, solar panels, and efficient appliances. Yeah, yeah, blah blah ... but! If you buy one (for just $2 million or so) you get a Smart car! Which you park in an underground garage that can fit only Smart cars! Which would be the world's first garage-that-can-fit-only-a-certain-model-of-car! It's so crazy, I wish to hell it would work. Alas, the developers are up against maybe the worst economic situation possible in which to launch such a scheme. In their county alone (Buncombe County in the Asheville, N.C., area), seven years' worth of high-price homes are hanging out on the market. Sigh.

Radiant Cities: Here comes the SUN

Growing small houses for the recession age

Taken individually, the economic meltdown and the burst housing bubble are both, to use a technical term, bummers. But together, for certain problem-solving designers, architects, urbanists, and planners, they present an opportunity, especially when meshed with a rising environmental awareness. Besides building too many houses, we made them too large (not to mention too far away from centers of employment and commerce): they are essentially stick-framed gas-guzzlers. But if advocates have their way, the small house will be the next big thing.

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