Cities

Putting your inner political superego on hold

A utopian realist agenda

Recently Nordhaus and Shellenberger (N&S) posted on Gristmill, wrote in The New Republic, and published a book, all with the aim of offering a better alternative to the mainstream environmental agenda. In my estimation, they made three important points: Americans would respond to a positive vision of the future; global warming can only be solved if, in addition to regulatory policies, we embark on a program of public investment; and the public is quite open to the idea of public investment. Unfortunately, they didn't do much with that great start. I think I know why: the central thrust of the conservative movement since Reagan has been to inculcate the idea of "government bad, market good," and the idea of making a virtue of public investment runs totally counter to a conservative world view. So in order to be politically relevant, N&S look to the two institutions that conservatives and moderates have been able to agree are legitimate sources of public investment: the Pentagon and government-supported R&D. But that "won't work," as N&S declare about the possibility of mitigating global warming with a regulations-only policy framework. To be brief, the Pentagon is part of the problem, not part of the solution; and while R&D is always a good idea, the level of their combined program is only $30 billion per year, which would be great in this political climate but won't do much for the global climate. These negatives shouldn't blind us to their advocacy of a positive vision and a public investment approach. One of the reasons public investment is not discussed more often in the environmental community, much less taken seriously as a policy approach, is that we have what I will call the problem of the political superego: before any such policy can even be considered by the conscious mind, the political superego dismisses it out of hand. Which leads me to two of my favorite quotes: "The maximum that seems politically feasible still falls far short of the minimum that would be effective in solving the crisis," spoken by Al Gore at a policy address at NYU in 2006. The other, by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees, the authors of Our Ecological Footprint: "In today's materialistic, growth-bound world, the politically acceptable is ecologically disastrous while the ecologically necessary is politically impossible." I want to use the phrase "utopian realism" to express this dilemma, and to point to a possible way out of it. The word "realist" means that the policies advocated are a realistic way out of our global crises, from a technical point of view. "Utopian" has two meanings here -- first, that the political chances of these policies being implemented seem utopian; but second, that the implementation of these goals could inspire action. (The sociologist Anthony Giddens has also used the term "utopian realism", in a roughly similar way.) So I ask you to try to keep your political superego at bay for a few paragraphs, as I lay out a possible positive vision of public investment.

Russian roulette

Expect bicycle deaths in Seattle to climb

Not good. I happened upon this accident scene a few days ago. Apparently, a right turning truck hit a young bicyclist, killing him instantly. He had been in Seattle for only a few weeks and was the same age as my daughter, who rides a bike on a distant college campus. The sight truly unsettled me and made my bike trip through the heart of downtown more nerve racking than usual. I want to use this tragedy to send a message to our amiable yet bumbling local politicians who have pledged to do their share to fight global warming. Your diversion of tax dollars into biodiesel has been a complete waste of funds and your bike plan is woefully inadequate to protect the burgeoning numbers of Seattle cyclists. Seattle's Burke-Gilman trail began life as a recreational park. It has become a dangerous, heavily traveled bike commute arterial. Just the other day a pedestrian leaped out from behind a bush a few feet in front of me. I missed him, but it is only a matter of time. As the number of bikers climb, so will deaths, unless steps are taken that will prevent them. Plastering signs all over the place may be inexpensive, but it is also largely ineffective. Bicycles, and the rapidly rising numbers of electric assisted bikes, hold far more promise for reduced emissions than any other idea on the table, bar none. The loudmouths trapped in their steel 200 horsepower wheelchairs screaming that funds should be diverted from bike to car infrastructure need to be ignored. If you were smart you would turn Seattle into a model, world-class example of how to accommodate bikes, instead forcing your well-meaning citizens to play a bicycle version of Russian roulette every day.

Folds-mobile

Business travel, Bike Friday, and the Spokane airport

Confession: I have long coveted a Bike Friday. What cyclist wouldn't? A folding bike that fits in a suitcase -- and the suitcase becomes a bike trailer! Pedal to the airport or train station, take your luggage out of your trailer, fold your bike into the trailer, check your luggage (including your bike), and at trip's end, reverse the process. Ingenious! So I danced a jig when a founder of the Eugene, Ore.-based company offered to let me try the new Tikit model this summer, to use on my public speaking trips around the Northwest. The question that interested me was whether a folding bike can meet the challenges of urban business travel. The answer is a provisional yes, but the real revelation is the Bicycle Neglect at airports. First, to get it out of the way, my product review: The Tikit is not a performance bicycle. Compared with a well-fitted road bike, it's, um, foldable: it's slow, handles indifferently, and flexes in worrisome ways. But that's the wrong comparison. The question is whether, when a regular bike is impossible, a folding one is a viable substitute, and the Tikit passes that test. It's a sweet ride for something that collapses in seconds and fits in your Samsonite:

Not just a pretty face

Brad Pitt pledges millions for sustainable rebuilding of New Orleans

Brad turns out to be as serious (on climate) as he is good looking. He came to the first CGI as an observer, not a speaker. But today he announced a major commitment: Brad Pitt expanded his commitment to New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward today by announcing plans for a new community of homes in the area hardest-hit by the worst natural disaster in American history. He is partnering with Steve Bing in creating the 150 affordable and sustainable homes, which are the first effort of Pitt's "Make it Right" project. Pitt announced his plan at today's meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, where he challenged attendees to join him and Bing in rebuilding the Lower Ninth Ward. Pitt pledged to match $5 million in contributions to the project. Bing has pledged to match $5 million in contributions as well, for a total of $10,000,000 in matching funds. Pitt seems genuinely committed to these issues. He said, it was "nice to be in a room with people who are not still debating climate change." He has enlisted William McDonough to make sure the housing is as green as possible:

British prime minister aims to build even more eco-towns

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has pledged to build 10 “eco-towns,” doubling his original vision of five. We like a man with ambition!

Portland: Cool after all

New report debunks libertarian attack on Portland city planning

A while back, a guy named Randal O’Toole at the libertarian Cato Institute put out a report "debunking" Portland, Ore.’s efforts to encourage dense, transit-oriented development. As Portland is at the forefront of such efforts, the report was taken as a debunking of New Urbanism in general and got lots and lots of press. The Congress for the New Urbanism asked urbanist expert Michael Lewyn to take a look at the report. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t hold up well. The result is "Debunking Cato: Why Portland Works Better Than the Analysis of Its Chief Neo-Libertarian Critic." Here are some highlights: …

L.A. building schools close to freeways

More than 60,000 students in Los Angeles attend school within 500 feet of a highway, and seven more traffic-spooning campuses are in the works, despite health experts’ warnings that such pollution-proximate students are at increased risk of asthma and other illnesses. All of the schools will be built with air-filtration systems, but such systems do not reliably remove the smallest, most dangerous particulate pollution. So long, sick days; c’mon in, sick year.

Traffic report

How much does congestion affect society?

The big story this week was congestion: the Texas Transportation Institute released its annual Urban Mobility Study to the typical fanfare. See, e.g., stories here, here, here, here, here, and here. The headlines, as always, are gloomy: congestion's on the rise just about everywhere, and is wasting our time, gas, and money. The word from the researchers isn't particularly hopeful either. Sure, there are things that can be done to slow the increase in congestion. But they can be expensive -- and, worse, there's no guarantee that they'll actually work. I dipped into the numbers a bit. And to the extent that the TTI estimates are actually accurate (which, as we've written about before, and as this LA Times story mentions, is a big question), it seems to me that there could be a silver lining in all of the wailing. You see, depending on how you look at things, congestion may not be as big a deal as the headlines make it out to be.

Sprawl and global warming

Land-use and development decisions are crucial in the fight against climate change, says new report

Living closer to where you work will do more to fight climate change than buying a Prius and living in the ‘burbs. We’ll never beat climate change until we change the way we structure our communities. That is the conclusion of a new report out from the Urban Land Institute: The report, "Growing Cooler: Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change," analyzed scores of academic studies and concluded that compact development — mixing housing and businesses in denser patterns, with walkable neighborhoods — could do as much to lower emissions as many of the climate policies now promoted by state …

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