Tuesday, 12 Aug 2003

EVERETT, Wash.

As I fill my breakfast bowl with fuel this Tuesday morning, I’ll fill yours with stats. (This is one of my shameless faults.) While commuting to work on my bike in the name of sustainable and livable communities, I have a lot of time to do simple math, a fact I note with an odd mix of pleasure and disdain. On my mind today: food calories, gasoline calories, and miles-per-gallon equivalent. If I let this ruminate for a while — while I dodge sleepy drivers and navigate a rare thunderstorm — I come up with the number 885. Yep, 885 miles per gallon is what the average cyclist gets over flat terrain. Hybrids, watch out. This is more than 40 times as efficient as the average car (a statistic that seems grow each year with the sad decline of fuel economy in the U.S.), and even two times as efficient as salmon. Simply put, it’s the most efficient mode of transport ever created by humans or nature, and, for other reasons as well, a very important tool in the quest for livable communities. But admittedly, my legs are a bit tired when I arrive at work this morning.

Those rare thunderstorms are on my mind, since I was nearly zapped at sunrise this weekend while sleeping on a ridge near Glacier Peak. As smart-growth directors are prone to do, I think in metaphor. Today’s task is electric, slightly scary, and promises to clear the air: a fundraising plan. The woes of the nonprofit world have started to build anvil-shaped heads and march over protective ridges … so I start making phone calls and refining my short, medium, and long-range plans.

I find strange irony in this morning’s fundraising tasks, since the cost of growth is the real issue here. If I could collect the money that this region uses to subsidize growth, all nonprofits would be well-funded. Of course, this would be a result of better-designed and more livable communities; I’d be the first to gleefully accept this trade-off and work myself out of a job.

I’ve been getting more used to framing arguments in terms of people’s values. A diversity of views and opinions fuels positive change and the democratic process and, no matter what kind of high ground we feel we may have, should be accepted with humility. That said, the reason I do my work is closely related to my core values, to a vision that many of us have about how much better the world and humanity can become if we roll up our sleeves and dig in. I think of ecological integrity, that elusive goal of sustainability, ecological and evolutionary processes, meaningful communities, an improved quality of life for all life … the stuff of environmental and social fantasies that aren’t too far outside our grasp. But the framework often becomes, regrettably, an economic one, and I can effectively incite change and motivation by arguing numbers, so I do.

I’m tempted to get back on my bike and spin around the Puget Sound shoreline here in Everett, since I can seemingly calculate better in the saddle, but instead I decide to consult a study by the Columbia Policy Institute. Before I spiel on, think about how much public infrastructure costs. Think about transportation (and our heavy dependence on capital-intensive projects like roads) and about schools. Consider electric power, parks facilities, and sewage systems. Ponder libraries, drinking water, fire protection, and stormwater treatment. Certainly there are other pieces to the infrastructure puzzle, but when one considers these alone — specific to residential development in Washington state — each resident pays, on average, $500 per year to subsidize growth. The aforementioned infrastructure can be broken down to each new single-family house (in 2000), which, after impact fees have been paid and construction expenses removed, costs taxpayers more than $80,000. Populate our buildable lands with a pile of these and you’ve got an annual residential infrastructure cost of $2.87 billion. Break out the maps and consider where some of this growth is going (read: far, far, far from the center of town in low-density rural areas) and the costs escalate. This alone, in my opinion, is reason enough for good mixed-use, transit-oriented, pedestrian-friendly urban redevelopment and infill.

Since I’m writing this for a magazine that publishes “gloom and doom with a sense of humor,” I can’t help but indulge by citing a few other troubling stats (gloom and doom, but no humor, I’m afraid). Air and water quality in Washington is threatened by car and truck pollution, which costs $267 million annually, or $89 per person. An average of 55,000 acres of fish and wildlife habitat are lost each year to land-use conversion in Washington. Exercise and health — which are directly related to how cities are designed — are on the downswing, with a record 61 percent of U.S. adults overweight or obese, leading to direct health care costs of more than $100 billion. And the average Washington driver spends $930 annually for gasoline — and spends 40 hours a year stuck in traffic.

Yikes. With thunderheads moving in, I let the storm of numbers fall from my mind and consider again how much better the world and humanity can become if we roll up our sleeves and dig in.