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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Public transit use is up — again!

America hasn't exactly turned into a train-crazed utopia just yet (have you noticed?) but we're getting there!

New data released by the American Public Transportation Association this week shows a 2.6 percent bump in transit use over last year.

“With seven consecutive quarters of ridership increases, it’s obvious that public demand for public transit is growing,” said APTA President and CEO Michael Melaniphy. “As Congress works to resolve our country’s deficit problem, it also needs to work to resolve the transportation deficit. Otherwise public transit and highway funding will be facing an annual $15 billion shortfall in the next 10 years.”

APTA broke its findings down by location and type of transportation, some of which were bigger winners than others. Heavy rail enjoyed a 3.6 percent increase in ridership.


Light rail increases (4.2 percent!) were due at least in part to system improvements and expansions.

Read more: Cities, Living


From bike shares to urban farms, Philadelphia is on the rise

It's been a banner year for urbanism in the City of Brotherly Love.


A West Philadelphia project led The New York Times' piece on brownfields redevelopment today, and a new report released this week finds that the city's community development corporations are cleaning up blight, rehabbing houses, and adding millions to Philadelphia's tax base.

Yesterday, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter (D) officially launched a city Office of New Urban Mechanics dedicated to city innovation and problem-solving. "New Urban Mechanics will have the flexibility to experiment, the ability to re-invent public-private partnerships and the strategic vision to create real change for Philadelphia. I am excited to establish the Office of New Urban Mechanics as a civic innovation tool for urban transformation," Nutter said in a statement.

Like a lot of "urban innovation" initiatives these days, that is really vague! It could encompass everything from apps for tracking and fixing potholes to brainstorming around some of Philadelphia's big projects still in the works.

One big project: a bike share! Philadelphia wants to get one rolling. From the local CBS affiliate:

The city envisions getting a business plan together by next spring, then selecting a vendor, with the first bikes hitting the streets in 2014.

“We will need $3 million of city capital money,” says deputy mayor for transportation Rina Cutler, “then we hope to raise an additional five or six million in federal, state, and private funds.” ...

Cutler says they’re still working out how users will pay for the bicycles. Credit or debit cards might ensure that the bikes don’t get stolen, but she says they also want to figure out a cash model or cell-phone technology for payment that shows up on your phone bill, so they don’t eliminate low-income users.

Or the office could help set up a new city land bank to fight blight and grow Philadelphia's urban core. In October, the Pennsylvania state legislature passed a bill paving the way for a Philly land bank. A recent surge in demand for central city housing has motivated the city -- with its 40,000 vacant lots -- to establish the bank. But there's no telling yet if the bank will give preference to big developers or small nonprofits, or put everyone on a level playing field.

Things are looking great for Philadelphia! Except maybe (maybe!) when it comes to the city's burgeoning urban agriculture scene. This summer, the city approved new zoning rules that acknowledge upwards of 350 community gardens and farms spread across 753 different parcels. From Next American City:

Read more: Cities, Food, Living, Politics


King tides give California coast a taste of warmer, wetter future

THE KING TIDES ARE COMING. Through the end of the week, California will be experiencing its highest tides of the year, the "king" kind, that come around each winter. It may be galactic gravity that's pulling the water closer, but it looks a lot like climate change! The tides will be as high as +10.1 feet in some places.


From The San Jose Mercury News:

"Flooding would be a concern if we had a storm system coming through," said Matt Mehle, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Monterey. Instead, the rising water will offer a teachable moment, scientists say. Already, the ocean off California has risen 8 inches in the past 100 years. As the earth warms, polar ice melts, and the warmer ocean water expands, increasing sea level. That rate of sea level rise is accelerating. A National Academy of Sciences report in July found that, relative to sea levels in 2000, the California coast south of Cape Mendocino is projected to experience sea level rise of 1.5 inches to 11.8 inches by 2030, and 4.7 inches to 24 inches by 2050, and 16.5 inches to 65 inches by 2100.

Just because the Golden State won't have a Sandy-sized catastrophe doesn't mean there can't still be a lesson in all this. The Mercury News calls this "a giant science project" but I call it "scaring people into better behavior." The California King Tides Initiative is collecting citizens' photos of the tides in an effort to educate the public about what higher sea levels might actually look like.

Read more: Climate & Energy


People aren’t connecting extreme weather to climate change — at least, not on Google

This morning, Google unveiled its "Zeitgeist 2012" report, a look at what the world searched for over the past 12 months. (Well, over the past 11-and-a-third months, anyway.) The No. 1 trending thing people searched for was Whitney Houston, which: OK. But when it came to news events, the most captivating thing was Hurricane Sandy.

Which got us thinking: Did those searches for Sandy prompt more searches on climate change? And the answer is: yes, but not many.

Here's what search traffic for "Hurricane Sandy" looked like over the course of the year, across the globe. (In all graphs, 100 represents the peak search volume.)

And, here, searches for "climate change" and "global warming."

See that tiny little tick up at the end of October? Yeah, that's correlated to Sandy.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Forecast for the Northeast by 2070: Much warmer, much rainier winters

Yesterday, four places in the Northeast saw record high temperatures, two in New York and two in Massachusetts. Over the past week, the number of record temperatures was much higher, spread throughout western New York and into Rhode Island. That's because, in the Northeast, late fall is the new late summer. And winter is the new fall.

According to scientists from the University of Massachusetts, that pessimistic assessment will probably be accurate for the region by 2070. From the press release:

A new high-resolution climate study by University of Massachusetts Amherst climate scientists, the first to apply regional climate models to examine likely near-term changes in temperature and precipitation across the Northeast United States, suggests temperatures are going to be significantly warmer in all seasons in the next 30 years, especially in winter. Also, they project that winters will be wetter, with more rain likely than snow. ...

Overall, the researchers say the region is projected to warm by some 2 to 3 degrees C by mid century, with local changes approaching 3.5 degrees C in winter. Precipitation will go up as well, particularly in winter, but again not uniformly across the Northeast. ...

"The only clear signal of change for precipitation is noted in winter, which appears to be heading toward wetter conditions, consistent with current trends," [Michael Rawlins of the Climate System Research Center] says. Winter precipitation is projected to rise significantly above natural weather variability, around 12 to 15 percent greater from southwest Pennsylvania to northern Maine, with the exception of coastal areas, where projected increases are lower.

"But we shouldn't expect more total seasonal snowfall," he adds. "Combined with the model-projected temperature trends, much of the increase will occur as rain. We're losing the snow season. It is contracting, with more rain in early and late winter."

Having grown up in the Snow Belt -- a region that traditionally gets massive lake-effect snowfall during the winter -- I just want to say: That sucks.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Community health centers rise up from toxic brownfields

If poor communities aren’t living in the shadow of active industrial pollution, they’re often living in its graveyard. Industrial polluted brownfields are fenced and festering from California to Maine, frequently situated near low-income residents. When developers come to clean up and build on the sites, too often they plan projects that will push out rather than benefit the people who live nearby.

A Worcester, Mass. brownfield.
Massachusetts Dept. of Environmental Protection
A brownfield in Worcester, Mass.

But today The New York Times points to a different kind of trend in brownfields development: building health centers for low-income local residents on sites formerly occupied by meatpacking plants, gas stations, and factories. These kinds of projects stand to bolster communities, not just property values, and they’re still serious investment opportunities for health-care companies.

[There's] a nationwide trend to replace contaminated tracts in distressed neighborhoods with health centers , in essence taking a potential source of health problems for a community and turning it into a place for health care. In recent years, health care facilities have been built on cleaned-up sites in Florida, Colorado, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Oregon and California.

“These health care providers are getting good at it,” said Elizabeth Schilling, policy manager for Smart Growth America, an advocacy group. “They have internalized the idea that this is an opportunity for them.”

Because these sites are contaminated, many qualify for government tax credits and grants, providing health centers with vital seed money to build. Community health centers, by design, exist to serve populations in poor neighborhoods, where there also tend to be available but contaminated properties like old gas stations, repair shops and industrial sites.

Read more: Cities


Yoko Ono is here to convince you that fracking is bad

I have some familiarity with modern and contemporary art. I enjoy it. I know a Twombly from a Rauschenberg from an Ellsworth. A woman sits in a museum for weeks on end, silently, or a man creates artwork from explosions? I get it. Generally.

But this?

Not a fan of Yoko Ono. In 2002, I went to an Ono exhibit at the MoMA in San Francisco. It was one of the worst exhibits I've seen there: trite, pretentious, slathered with the artist's name. I doubt my assessment of her work is unique -- and, of course, others dislike Ono for other reasons.

Therefore, I highly, highly doubt this ad, which ran full-page in this week's New York Times, is going to resolve the debate over fracking.


2012 saw the fewest wildfires in a decade — but the second-most acres burned ever

This is the most calm the Forest Service's active fire map has looked all year.

current fire map dec 2012

After all, here was the year 2012 in fires, as compiled by NASA.

From the description: "Areas of yellow and orange indicate larger and more intense fires, while many of the less intense fires, shown in red, represent prescribed burns started for brush clearing and agriculture and ecosystem management." Click to embiggen.
From the description: "Areas of yellow and orange indicate larger and more intense fires, while many of the less intense fires, shown in red, represent prescribed burns started for brush clearing and agriculture and ecosystem management." Click to embiggen.

Through August, the continental U.S. had seen the most acreage burned by wildfires in history. Happily, that trend didn't continue. We only came in second.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Americans are quite literally giving their gold and silver away

A quick civics quiz to start your day. The answers are in italics at the end of each question. (If you read the headline, you're cheating.)

  1. When was the General Mining Act, which is still in place, signed into law? 1872.
  2. Under the General Mining Act, how much do companies pay to stake a claim to extract precious metals on public land? How much in annual maintenance costs thereafter? $189; $140.
  3. How much do they pay to the government in royalties for each ounce of gold extracted? Silver? Copper? Zero dollars; nada; zilch.
  4. How much did the government earn in royalties from precious metal extraction last year? Not one fucking penny.

In other words, if your company staked a claim in 1873, and had been mining gold from it continuously, the total cost to your company would have been $19,509. At today's spot price of $1,715 an ounce, you'd have needed to extract only 12 ounces over the past 139 years to recoup the entire amount you'd paid the U.S. government.

These miners paid the same amount to the government that a mining company would today, because the system works
This mining operation paid the same amount to the government that a mining company would today, because the system works.


Interior: We’ll maybe finalize those fracking rules next year

Bad news, water lovers: You're going to need to wait until at least 2013 before you know if you're drinking fracking fluid.

Last May, the Department of the Interior, America's most introspective governmental bureau, announced proposed regulations for the fracking process. The proposal was … not very strong. Companies would have to provide information on chemicals used in the process, but only after the fact.

department of interior
The fast-acting Department of the Interior.

Nonetheless, the fracking industry was hella mad, because if you government pencil-necks say companies have to worry about where chemicals end up or, worse, have to tell everyone what chemicals they use, those companies will have to fire everyone and probably resort to a life of crime. And besides, they noted, the existing rules states have are already so oppressive.

But Interior was all, too bad, guys. We're going to crack down! By the end of the year, you watch, we'll have final rules.

And, lo, The Hill reports:

The Interior Department no longer plans to finalize rules this year that will impose new controls on the controversial oil-and-gas development method called hydraulic fracturing, a spokesman said.

“In order to ensure that the 170,000 comments received are properly analyzed, the Bureau of Land Management expects action on the [hydraulic fracturing] proposal in the new year,” Interior spokesman Blake Androff said.