Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Christmas Letter 2009

In difficult and frightening times, it is often helpful to return to first principles. How are we to live? How shall we act toward our neighbors—those who are next door, and those who, in a world of instant communication, are thousands of miles away?
Few have answered these questions more compellingly than the prophet Micah. We are required, he wrote, to do justice; to love mercy; and to walk humbly with our god.
This simple teaching grows more complex and rewarding as we reflect on it. We must do justice, but justice without mercy can become mere vengeance. We must love mercy, but mercy without justice cannot heal the world. And we must be humble. We must guard against the arrogance that can undercut both our justice and our mercy and lead us toward disaster.
Of the prophet’s three virtues, humility may be the most important today. Arrogance—the sense that we could control events without limitations—helped tempt the United States into Iraq and Afghanistan. The attempt to eliminate financial risk with accounting tricks helped bring about our economic crisis. We assumed that the earth was there for our convenience, when in fact we were destroying it. We did not practice humility, and that has cost us.
This year, let us resolve to do justice; to temper justice with mercy; and to walk humbly with our neighbors and on the earth.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Strategy and the Planet

Climate change, with its disruption of traditional farming and living patterns, its effects on food and water supplies, and its economic repercussions, has always posed a strategic threat to all nations. The world's dependence on fossil fuels has also been a problem in its own right, regardless of its effects on the environment. Commentators, including some in the Pentagon, agree that ignoring climate change for business as usual is not just morally wrong, but strategically foolhardy.

A group of retired military officers has now formed Operation FREE, a campaign to present the strategic importance of sustainable energy policy and work toward cleaner energy policies.

In a country where too many members of Congress still talk as if global warming were a minor problem that threatens jobs and may be a hoax, a campaign like this is a significant development. Those who don't listen to the scientific consensus may pay attention to hard-nosed, well-reasoned strategic arguments. Even if they do not, it is good for the rest of us to remember that a sustainable economy is not only the right direction, but the smart direction.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Three Modest Proposals

Buildings and transportation are the sectors of the U.S. economy that generate the most greenhouse gases. Refitting our houses, public buildings, and neighborhoods to make them sustainable will take time. It will create new industries and jobs, but it is a long-term, not a short-term solution.

Transportation is both a long-term and a short-term problem. The Cash for Clunkers program, which recently concluded, was touted partly as a way to cut fuel use, and therefore greenhouse gases. Most reports showed that it effectively cleared auto dealers' inventory but did little for fuel use or the environment.

Cash for Clunkers was a camel—a horse designed by a committee—but it is not too late for other ideas that could, if implemented, have more impact on fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions.

Herewith, three such ideas. They are simple in principle and easy to understand. They would help lower fuel use and emissions. They are not, however, camels, and because they are not, they may never make it through Congress. I present them in the order of likelihood.

  • Delivering the Goods: Driving to a store and back uses fuel. Multiply this by tens of thousands of cars, and it uses a lot of fuel. If more stores offered free delivery service, more people could avoid driving to the store and back, which in turn would economize on fuel because one delivery truck on a well-planned route uses less fuel than hundreds of cars driving to the store and back. Free delivery would also allow small businesses to compete with big box stores, which generally do not deliver. To encourage delivery services, why not offer businesses below a certain size an up-front tax credit if they provide free delivery? This would be simple to do; it would be a tax cut for the sector that generates more new jobs than any other; and it would economize on fuel.
  • Cap and Reward: Why not create a voluntary fuel-saving program for households? Households which enrolled in the program would receive a fuel card based on their annual use of fossil fuels. They would present the card each time they paid for fuel, and it would be debited according to how much fuel they used. At the end of the year a household that used less fuel than the previous year would get a tax credit for economical fuel use. There would be no penalty for going over the previous year's usage—just a strong incentive to economize. The program would be voluntary, and hence not intrusive. It would be popular—who doesn't want a tax credit? And it would almost certainly save fuel and help to cut emissions.
  • Rides for Clunkers: The original Cash for Clunkers program was designed to move cars off dealers' lots. Rides for Clunkers would try to cut fuel usage and move people to public transit. A family which traded in a high-fuel-use car for one that was more economical would, instead of cash, receive a transit card worth, say, $3000 in free rides on public ground transit, including trains, buses, and light rail. Transit riders who commute often pay less than half of this amount in a year, so the card might provide as much as two years in free rides. Those who abandoned their cars entirely and sold them for scrap would receive $6,000 in free rides. This program would require some setup, and Congress doesn't really like public transit very much, so it has the least chance of being implemented. Still, it is worth presenting for discussion.
In the long run, cutting fuel usage and emissions will become so important that, if we don't find alternatives based on incentives and attractive voluntary programs, we will almost certainly have to resort to rationing in some form. Starting now, with programs that encourage economy without coercing it, is the best way to go in a free society. Whether Congress and state legislatures will see that is quite another matter. One can only hope.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Cash for Clunkers: Not Very Green

The City Fix has a good roundup of reporting on the environmental effects of the popular "Cash for Clunkers" program. The conclusion? That the program will have little or no effect on overall emissions.

The clearest presentation of the arguments is in a Washington Post article by Lee Schipper, founder of EMBARQ, and his colleagues.

On the evidence so far, the program is helping car dealerships a lot. The environment, not so much.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Best, the Worst, and the Good

The climate change bill that passed the House earlier this month is predictably full of compromises. Climate change deniers, of whom Congress has more than its full share, wanted no bill at all. House members who supported the bill were under pressure from energy companies, mining interests, and car manufacturers to preserve jobs and industries. The result was a cap and trade approach to controlling greenhouse gases, with givebacks to polluters, that was far from the best it could be.

Cap and trade systems are more complex than the alternative—a tax on carbon—favored by many environmentalists. They are harder to administer fairly and far more difficult to understand. Cap and trade, even without the givebacks in the House bill, is not the best approach to curbing emissions.

With all its faults, however, the bill is an important step forward, assuming the Senate passes it as well. For the first time, at least in the United States, it sets a price on greenhouse gas emissions. Imperfect as its price mechanism is, it will force businesses to consider environmental costs when setting prices, purchasing supplies, replacing equipment, and choosing shipping methods. It will not make as much difference as a more perfect approach, but it will make a difference.

The key here is to recognize that the good is not always the enemy of the best, and to avoid making the best the enemy of the good. The House bill becomes a problem only if we see it as a final policy rather than a step toward a better policy. It can also become a problem if we reject it because it is not the ideal bill. It is better than having no policy, as long as the nation follows it with more efficient and more stringent systems. If there is no followup, then, by encouraging complacency, the good has become the enemy of the best; but it is still better than doing nothing.

This general principle—that we should not let the best become the enemy of the good, and vice versa—applies in many areas. And in all these areas, the worst is usually the enemy of both the good and the best.

Consider land use planning. Better land use is essential to any program to control greenhouse gases. If shops, services, and jobs are not accessible without a car, then Americans will depend on their cars and use them all the time. They will have no choice. The best planning encourages walkable shopping districts, jobs that are within a short walk of home, and public transit connections to shopping and work located further away.

The picture at the head of this article shows the worst, both in design and in environmental impact. The fast food restaurants, each surrounded by its own parking lot, are far from where their customers live. The parking lots complicate and pollute water runoff. There is no public transit in the picture, and probably none for miles (if there is any at all). The highway that leads to these eateries is dangerous for walking and biking. This little complex is a disaster in almost every way: it is a threat to the environment and an affront to the eye, and the food is pretty bad as well (not to mention its own impact on the environment).

The best solution to the problems posed by this complex is to change the incentives so that locating a restaurant in the middle of nowhere makes no economic sense. This is unlikely all at once, but a good first step would be zoning reform to allow mixed land use (shops and offices located near, or even among, houses where people live). This will not satisfy those who think fast food complexes should all be torn down, but in the long run, well-judged zoning reform could rebuild communities and transform them. Zoning reform would begin to change the incentives, even if it did not immediately reshape the community.

The worst, however, is in this case the enemy of the good and the best. In the long run, if we do nothing about places like this fast-food complex—or worse, continue to build more of them—both our good proposals and our best proposals will no longer matter. Climate change and the damage that comes with it will be impossible to reverse or control.

Many people see nothing wrong with miles of stand-alone, plastic eateries surrounded by parking lots. No one considers environmental costs in locating a new MacDonald's or Burger King—or no one has until recently. These attitudes are deeply imbedded in our culture, and they must change. By putting a price on carbon emissions, even a flawed cap and trade system will encourage corporations to ask themselves hard questions about location, food production, and nearly every aspect of their operation. Walkable locations and smaller parking lots will become more attractive, as will locally-produced food products.

This will not be ideal—the ideal would include radical changes in the American diet, for example—but it would be a step toward lower carbon emissions. That is not the best, but it would help us to move in the right direction.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Car Sharing Reaches a New Milestone

The City Fix reports that Zazcar, a Brazilian company,has launched a car-sharing service in Sao Paulo. Sao Paulo thus becomes the 1,000th city in the world to have a car-sharing service, and the first in Latin America.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Fixing Transit, Creating Jobs

The City Fix reports that a Portland, Oregon, firm has begun producing streetcars—a type of transit vehicle not produced in the U.S. for 60 years, yet common in many other developed countries.

The posting includes links to United Streetcar, the manufacturer, and its parent company, the Oregon Iron Works. Also included is a link to a history of streetcars in the U.S.

Those who think the bankruptcy of General Motors and Chrysler spells the end of transportation-oriented manufacturing jobs in the United States should consult this posting. Converting the U.S. transportation system to a more sustainable model will generate thousands of new jobs to help replace those lost as the older, car-centric model becomes less viable.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Two Suburbs—An American Journey

A few weeks ago, I had a business appointment in Springfield, Pa. From my neighborhood to my appointment in Springfield it is just under 15 miles. There is no practical public transit route, so I reserved a car from PhillyCarShare for the journey.

Google Maps was handy for finding a route, but its estimate of travel time was, to put it mildly, overoptimistic. The computer estimated a 27 minute drive. Any driver who has experienced the route, or part of it, myself included, estimates a driving time closer to 1 hour because of expected traffic and adds at least half an hour to that estimate to allow for unexpected traffic.

Getting from my neighborhood to Springfield was an object lesson in why the private car is a very bad people-mover. It was also an opportunity to compare two suburbs from different eras.

My home is in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, just outside the Tulpehocken Station Historic District. This historically certified group of houses, most built in the mid-to-late 19th Century, forms an early "railroad suburb" near the Tulpehocken stop on the local train to Chestnut Hill (another early railroad suburb). For the homeowners who built their houses in the district, the presence of a convenient rail stop was an incentive to settle there. Tulpehocken Station became a kind of transit hub for the district. Houses there reflect the affluence of those who commissioned them, and some of the finest Philadelphia architectural firms designed them. The result is an area that is as attractive as nearly any in the city. The affluent homeowners no longer live in the district, and many of the houses are now divided into apartments. But the district retains its charm. (Here are some pictures of the area.)

The district and the neighborhood surrounding it are handy to shopping areas, medical offices, and schools. Most addresses in the area score 85-90 (highly walkable) on—which means that residents need not drive in order to have access to shops, services, and restaurants. Walkability like this is one of the virtues of many city neighborhoods, and so it is with the Tulpehocken Station district area.

I set out from my home just after lunch, and almost immediately ran into the expected traffic. To get from Germantown to Springfield, there are only two practical routes. One follows U.S. Route 1 (called variously City Avenue and County Line Road). The other uses Route 76, the Schuylkill Expressway. Both routes are notorious for heavy traffic at all hours. The Expressway has, with some justice, acquired the nickname "Surekill Crashway," so I chose Route 1.

Route 1 is also not a particularly pleasant drive. It has stop-start traffic most of the way, and it was laid out by a series of township governments who had quite differing ideas about turning lanes and traffic lights. Most people who use it regularly are very relieved when they turn off to get to their final destination. So was I when Google Maps' directions took me away from Route 1 and into a series of back roads through an area of Springfield that, judging by the architecture, had been a suburb in the 1950s and was now well-settled and older, but still well-maintained and well-off.

It was a pleasant drive through an area that was clearly designed during the ascendancy of the private automobile. I saw no bus stop signs and only one light rail station in four miles of driving. The houses were more attractive than those in most subdivisions, though not quite as elegant as those near my home. Some were surrounded by woodlands, which gave them almost a fairy-tale quality.

But getting food, medical services, and laundry detergent required a car. The nearest shopping location was just over a mile from the edge of this suburb, and it was a mall that was closed for refurbishing (which these days is often a euphemism for closed permanently). The only school I passed was out of walking range of most of the homes in the neighborhood. A typical address in this area returns a walkscore rating of 35-40 (not walkable). Rising fuel prices and diminishing supplies will not be good for this neighborhood. Whether it will adapt only time will tell, but it is not well-situated for an era of limited resources.

I completed my business in Springfield and set out for home again. The pleasant suburb I had passed through earlier was the best part of the return journey, which provided yet another lesson in the defects of the private car as people mover. With less than five miles to go on Route 1, I learned that ahead on my route there had been a major accident. Traffic, which was now at rush hour levels, was so stalled that I managed less than half a mile in twenty minutes. Home began to look very good.

Once I had returned the car to its PhllyCarShare pod (parking space), I walked home. Germantown's economy has many problems, but as I walked I realized that, with a very short detour, I could get food, and without detouring at all I could get a fresh vegetable at the corner store a hundred yards from my house. I could walk to the shops. I did not need to fight traffic, use fuel, and maintain a vehicle in order to cook supper. I was grateful for that.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Two Good Articles on Transportation

The City Fix, an excellent blog on cities, has just posted two major articles on transportation policy. One, Call for Wholesale Reform, Not Just Reauthorization, of Transportation Bill, is particularly timely with so much stimulus money going to infrastructure repair.

The second posting is a summary and link to a good overview of transportation policy posted on the WorldChanging blog.

Both items are well worth reading.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Going Car-Free

The May 12 New York Times blog, Room for Debate. features "Car-Free in America?", a wide-ranging and enlightening discussion on whether, and how, the developed world can reduce or eliminate its heavy dependence on private automobiles. The issue is particularly important in the United States, where most households support more than one car, walkable suburban neighborhoods are unusual, and public transit investment very low by European and Pacific Rim standards. Well worth reading.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Getting There from Here—Mobility and Freedom

First in an occasional series on the ethics and practicalities of mobility.

How, in a finite world, can we get from here to there? Should we even be traveling at all? How much, and how freely?

For most of us most of the time, broad questions like these do not come up. We worry about getting to work, keeping the car fueled and running, getting to the train on time, and similar problems. Underlying all of these, however, is the question of mobility—how much we should have and how we can achieve it most efficiently.

Any discussion of mobility has three aspects:

  • The Ethics of Mobility: Should we be able to move freely from place to place? If not, how are we to determine restrictions on our movements? More important, who can legitimately make that determination? (Here I am speaking about policy decisions; the ethical questions facing individuals are different from those facing policymakers.) If we have some sort of right to mobility, we face a series of decisions about the best modes of transport. Hence the second aspect of the discussion:
  • The Efficiency of Our Transportation: How can we move individuals and large numbers of people from place to place at the lowest cost in fuel, money, stress, and emissions? Once we have a proposal to do this, we need to determine how to apply it in practice:
  • Implementation of Transportation Plans: How can we persuade people to use the most efficient method to get to their destination?

I begin with ethics because most commentators don't discuss them. Most of our discussions concern how to make our transportation more efficient and less destructive, how to manage traffic, the state of our highways, and similar questions. To the question of whether we should be able to travel from place to place, most of us answer, "Of course," without further justification.

This is the most defensible position, but it never hurts to remind ourselves why we adopt it. The ability to move from place to place—to change cities, to change countries, to get from home to our place of work—is a fundamental component of human liberty. Countries that have restricted it, as Czarist Russia did with internal passports, are unattractive models for the future. An internal passport under the Czars was a means of social control that required a large and intrusive enforcement apparatus. Unlike a mere identity card, it could be, and was, used to restrict peoples' movements.

In order to save fuel and reduce our carbon emissions, it might be useful to restrict travel, limit the use of automobiles, or force travelers to choose certain modes of transport over others. We would do this, however, only at the cost of becoming a quite different, and far less free, society. It is no accident that totalitarian societies restrict mobility as well as speech, requiring exit visas for those who wish to go abroad and proper paperwork even for those who want to go to a different city.

Choices about mobility are also choices about what kind of society we will have. The wrong choices may change us in ways we might be unable to bear.

That, in brief, is part of the ethical case for preserving freedom of movement. Stated generally like this, it does not provide much practical guidance. The practical question is whether we can preserve mobility without destroying the planet, and if so, how. The next article in this series will take up this question, along with other ethical questions it raises.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Recycling the Suburbs—Followup Notes

Alison Arief has now posted a followup note on the suburbs in her By Design blog. Based partly on comments from readers, it is enlightening not only for Arief's analysis and resource recommendations, but for what it reveals about the attitudes of urban dwellers toward suburbanites and vice-versa.

Since the suburbs as they now stand are becoming less viable every day, it is up to all of us to find humane, sustainable ways to retrofit them. Arief's followup note shows how difficult this may be. Teamwork begins with the sense of being on the same side. With respect to making the suburbs more sustainable, there are a lot of good ideas out there. And there are a lot of unhelpful attitudes. Let's hope this can change, and quickly.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Recycling the Suburbs

The American suburb—fuel-intensive, automobile-based, and without walkable neighborhoods—is coming to the end of its useful life. Rising fuel costs and the collapse of the mortgage market mean that some planned developments will not proceed, some developments that have begun will never be finished, and many suburban residents will have to move to smaller and less expensive houses.

Those who, like James Howard Kunstler. dislike the suburbs, expect and hope that they will collapse of their own weight. Others, including this blog, have tried to find ways to make existing suburbs more sustainable by measures like connecting them with public transit and revising zoning codes.

One of the most interesting recent discussions of the design problems posed by the decline of the suburbs is a recent posting in Alison Arief's By Design blog. Although the article reaches no conclusions—Arief admits that she has no perfect solution—it outlines the difficulty of finding creative approaches to recycling the suburbs even while it hopes they will be found.

Well worth reading.

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