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 …

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.

It's bus-ness time

Creating transit-oriented communities addresses many different issues

Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives Last November, Seattle-area voters gave a resounding shout-out to mass transit. Building on that support, a new bill in Washington state focuses on sustainable development near transit stations. This "Creating Transit Communities" legislation calls for dense, walkable communities in transit hot-spots. It would provide local jurisdictions with resources and incentives for sustainable growth and strengthen existing provisions about making low-income housing available near transit centers. Think those are unrelated issues? No way, say bill supporters from Futurewise, Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, and Transportation Choices Coalition. "Our state may face no challenge greater than the threat of global warming and the lack of sufficient affordable housing," they argue in a recent Seattle P-I editorial, "and we can't solve either unless we solve both." They go on to illuminate the connections:

Changes we can all believe in

Reducing regulatory interference and barriers to clean energy — all at once

Creating a 21st century electrical grid is finally a priority and the possibilities seem enormous. Despite the grand potential, though, many of the most important decisions will involve painstaking regulatory and tax reform rather than sweeping mandates. What's politically intriguing about these reforms is that at least in principle they ought to appeal across ideological lines: Conservatives like less regulation and more rational tax policy, and progressives like removing barriers to renewable energy, so this seems like fertile territory for odd bedfellows. In that vein I recommend two pieces, both adapted from reports from the conservative Manhattan Institute. The first is "Growing NYC's Grid," an excellent piece in the New York Post from Hope Cohen of MI's Center for Rethinking Development. It notes a simple barrier to expanding the city's grid: transformers, the facilities that take high-voltage juice from transmission lines and convert it to lower-voltage juice for distribution lines, can only be built on industrially zoned property, which is increasingly rare and expensive in urban areas. But today's transformers are smaller, quieter, and cleaner than they were when zoning regs were passed, and can be integrated into the urban landscape. (There's one in the base of 7 World Trade Center.) A simple regulatory change -- allowing transformers in commercially zoned areas -- can boost the reliability and efficiency of NYC's power. Imagine how many more rules and laws there are like this across the country. For more on this, see Cohen's full report, "The Neighborly Substation: Electricity, Zoning, and Urban Design."

Everybody loves stimulus

Obama doesn't need to back away from investment to appease conservatives

Conservative pollster Frank Luntz takes to the pages of the L.A. Times to share the news that everyone loves infrastructure: Last month, I conducted a national survey of 800 registered voters on their attitudes toward infrastructure investment ... The survey's findings were unlike any other issue I have polled in more than a decade. Iraq, healthcare, taxes, education -- they all predictably divide and polarize Americans into political camps. Not infrastructure. Consider this: A near unanimous 94% of Americans are concerned about our nation's infrastructure. And this concern cuts across all regions of the country and across urban, suburban and rural communities. This demonstrates yet another reason why Obama's attempt to appease conservatives by bumping transit infrastructure investments to make room for tax cuts is pointless. The people want infrastructure, they want stimulus, and those two happen to be the same thing, so who gives a f*ck what Republicans want? Nate Silver follows up with this excellent point: I'm not sure why Obama isn't doing more to highlight the green portions of the stimulus bill. The public seems to tolerate the spending on bridges and highways -- but they also see it, perhaps not wholly improperly, as make-work. The long-run benefits of the alternative energy programs, on the other hand, are far more intuitively appealing. If the central critique of the stimulus is that the debt we're creating will be burdensome to future generations, that concern could be mitigated if the spending in question is portrayed as a down payment made on behalf of those future generations toward cleaning up the environment and mitigating dependence on fossil fuels. It also provides for some sense of purpose to the stimulus: we'll come out of this, Obama can say, with the greenest, most energy-independent major industrial economy in the world, etc. etc. Exactly. I really don't see why Obama has to trim his sails one bit on this stuff. It's overwhelmingly popular and substantively correct policy, a combo that doesn't come along very often.

Starving artists

Art and environment panel discusses price of public art

Photo: talldrinkawater3000 I was staring out the window at the Olympic Sculpture Park's beautiful landscape when, about 30 minutes into a panel discussion about art and the environment, moderator Lucia Athens finally mentioned the elephant in the room -- or rather, the sacred cow. It came in the form of a question thrown out to the panelists -- architect Tom Kundig, style expert Rebecca Luke, and artist Roy McMakin -- about a new bill that would cut the money funneled to public art projects (about one-half of one percent of state building funds). Proposed by Washington Sen. Steve Hobbs (D-Lake Stevens), who has said he considers public art to be a "sacred cow that should be put out to pasture," the bill would save the state $5 million in the next budget. "Absurd" was Kundig's response. Stand back and look at the proportion, he advised; this bill doesn't look at the big picture of how much money is put toward other, more wasteful projects. It's not just about the money, McMakin said. Public art is about culture, and it's about jobs. "Art is woven into the culture of the built environment around us." Why should you care about this public art battle?