Monday, December 18, 2006

Christmas Letter 2006

The curious thing about the future is this: Although it has not yet happened, it affects the present in ways we may not even recognize. We plan for it, and in doing so we make decisions about our families, our work, and what we value most in life. By our choices—even by not choosing, which is itself a choice—we create it for good or ill.

So it is now. We face a future of limits because the world is finite. We face a future of climate change that will also constrain us. Our future will be unlike that of any other generation.

For many of us, this is a frightening prospect. It calls into question all our past values, from economic growth to trips to the local shopping mall. How will we live in the uncertain world that is ahead?

There is no easy or sure answer. The only way for us to move forward is to have faith. Not faith that certain creeds are true. Faith is not a way of proving propositions. It is the act of trusting in ourselves, in others, and in the future, even though we cannot be certain of the outcome.

We can move forward only if we trust that, by doing what we can to create a better future, we will make a difference—even if at this moment we cannot see a clear path ahead. Like Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, we must take the Ring, trusting that we will somehow find the way.

Without this kind of trust, we will see no path at all. With it, we can make a beginning. And we can move toward a more hopeful future.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Design for What? Third of Three Parts

A ten-story parking garage at 15th and Chestnut Streets in Center City (downtown) Philadelphia, as proposed by one condominium developer, is quite rightly controversial. Opponents argue that it would add more traffic to an already-congested corner and encourage people to drive to and around Center City, which in turn would generate more greenhouse gases and increase fuel consumption. On the other hand, supporters of the project argue, the city needs more parking to attract visitors from the suburbs who will not take public transit or walk long distances to get to events on the Avenue of the Arts (Broad Street), which is just around the corner from the proposed garage, or to Center City restaurants and other attractions. And the city needs the suburban visitors.

This is not an easy balance to strike. The city does need the visitors. But the city also needs to survive and thrive in an era when travel by private car will become more expensive and difficult than it is today—and when climate change will almost certainly force us to restrict our use of private cars. Market pressures and legal requirements make the situation even more problematic. In the short term, plenty of parking is a marketing plus; in the long term, easy access to public transit may be a selling point. And in the short term, city ordnances require off-street parking for large residential building projects. (The parking garage project began as a condominium project that could not generate funding—hence the inclusion of off-street parking in the original plan.)

Whatever city ordnances and market pressures may dictate, however, lack of parking is not the problem that the "more-parking-is-better" mantra makes it appear to be. A quick search of Center City using Google Maps shows that there are already at least 531 parking facilities in Center City. Some of them, including the parking lot that is currently at 15th and Chestnut, are surface facilities that eat up space and destroy the cityscape. Most are multi-story buildings, some with retail on the ground floor, others with nothing at street level but a blank wall. At 15th and Spruce Streets, just three blocks south of the proposed garage, there is an extraordinary structure half a city block square that consists of a large tavern with ten stories of parking on top—making it possible to drink and drive in one convenient stop.

If parking is not the problem in Center City, what is? The simplest answer is also the truest: jobs. The population of Center City is growing; the economic base is not. And a parking garage at 15th and Chestnut Streets will not reverse this trend. Even with retail stores on the ground floor, it will house fewer jobs than the building that occupied this space before a major fire destroyed it in the 1980s. The good of the city would be better served by commercial development on this site—ideally, retail on the ground floor, with no more than 10-12 stories of offices above it to fit in with the rest of the Chestnut Street corridor. The problem is attracting the jobs.

Philadelphia, it must be said, provides a difficult environment for business because of its eccentric tax structure and bewildering bureaucracy. In the long run, however, merely ending these barriers will do less for the city than a good development plan that balances commercial, residential, and transportation projects to maintain a vibrant, walkable center that people can reach without resorting to their cars.

Philadelphia is not the only city that needs planning like this. In the future that is coming, public transit will become more important. Walkable business districts will become vital. And living closer together in viable neighborhoods will be a necessity. We could choose not to move in these directions: to build more and more parking lots and big-box stores, let our public transit fall to pieces, and ravage our cities in the name of storing millions of private cars. If we do, the odds are against our having a long-term future at all. But we will have plenty of parking.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Design for What? Second of Three Parts

The problem with designing a building is that it is a lasting monument. If it is beautiful, works with its surroundings, and moves us toward a better future, we will enjoy it for a long time, and it will help us to live better. If it is mediocre, ignores or destroys its surroundings, and lessens the prospect of a better future, we may tolerate it, but we will not love it—and in the end, when it has outlived its usefulness, we will have the problem of what to do with it.

All over the United States there are buildings like the big box store in the photo, the shopping mall outside of town that has effectively destroyed the central business district, and the office park that might once have been located in the city center. All are surrounded by acres of parking lots which damage water runoff, speed climate change (both by encouraging more cars and more driving, and by paving over farmland and green areas), and create traffic congestion. But in the suburbs, where most big boxes and office parks are located, parking, however ugly and destructive, has up to now been a sine qua non—an absolute necessity because shoppers and workers must drive their cars to reach the big box that is their destination. They have no alternative.

Older cities like Philadelphia provide alternatives to the private car. Public transit in Philadelphia is inadequately funded, does not run frequently enough, and follows routes that are often based on a city that once was, not the city that exists—but it is there, and it is quite possible to live in the city without a car at all. The difficulty for city planners is that the city needs to attract suburbanites for shopping, events, and jobs if it is to thrive. And suburbanites are not only in the habit of driving everywhere, they actually fear the city (any city, not just Philadelphia) at night. Or at least they fear the process of getting to and from downtown, or find it inconvenient,

In fact, it is inconvenient to drive from the suburbs to downtown, not because of parking but because of traffic. The local news in every city in the United States, not just Philadelphia, has regular reports on traffic jams—a daily crisis that everyone regards as normal even though it plainly is not. Hearing these reports, I regularly wonder why people subject themselves to the torture of driving to the city. The train is leisurely, comfortable, and quiet. It seems expensive, but compared with driving it is not. But there are few trains, they run at awkward times, and they stop running too early. Hence the choice of the slow, unpleasant, noisy, expensive drive to town.

Which brings us back to the proposed parking garage at one of the busiest intersections in downtown Philadelphia. From an environmental and social point of view, a ten-story parking garage like the one proposed is hard to justify. Less diplomatically, it is a disaster. It uses precious city space that could house offices or residents to house cars. It encourages driving to the city, and its location will inevitably increase traffic congestion.

That is the case against the proposal. The case for it is that the city "needs more parking" if it is to attract business from the suburbs. The real question, however, is whether, in the long run, the city will need more parking or better and more efficient access to its events and services. More and more parking seems important for the next five or ten years. But during those years, the price of fuel will go up, the supply will almost certainly go down, and the need to discourage driving (because of climate change) will become even more apparent than it is now. In the long run, the suburbs themselves will have to change or face ruin as the sheer cost of living in them and supplying them grows beyond what those who live there can sustain.

Given a long term in which suburbs become less viable (unless they also change), should city planners approve parking whose importance will probably diminish after five or ten years? And in any case, is a parking garage on one of the most important parcels of city land a good choice? More on this in the third posting of this series.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Design for What? First of Three Parts

One of my favorite blogs is Skyline Online, by the Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic, Inga Saffron. Saffron's postings and the discussions that follow range from the aesthetics of new buildings to Philadelphia city planning to climate change and back—a stimulating and worthwhile experience for anyone concerned about these issues.

A recent Skyline Online posting reported that a Philadelphia developer, unable to find enough potential tenants for a proposed condominium at 15th and Chestnut Streets, had now decided to build the project in two stages: a "beautiful" (the developer's word) ten-story parking garage in the next two years, and the rest of the condominium later.

Two-stage projects like this in Philadelphia—and presumably in most cities—tend to remain at Stage 1 indefinitely. In effect, the developer was proposing to build a permanent parking garage at one of the busiest intersections in downtown Philadelphia (Center City, in local terminology). The local planning commission, which seems to love parking above all else, was likely to approve the two-stage project, although the newly-appointed city planning commissioner later said that because planners had approved the garage only as part of the condominium project, approval would not necessarily be a foregone conclusion.

Comments on the posting range from those who saw the proposal as a disaster to those who argued that the building itself looked nice and that more parking was an unalloyed benefit because no one from the suburbs would come to Center City unless they could park. My own position was the former—in fact, I was the first to use the term "disaster."

The whole discussion raised a deeper question: What does it now mean to say that a building (or a city block, or a machine like an automobile, train, or bus) is well-designed? The parking garage makes a pretty picture in the architect's rendering, although whether it harmonizes well with the buildings near it is hard to tell. But its impact on the environment, both natural and man-made, is likely to be very unattractive indeed. Is a nice building that destroys the natural environment and causes more traffic congestion really well-designed?

That is a hard question, too hard for one short posting. The scientific consensus is that every additional mile we drive places greater and greater burden on the environment. This is true both of private cars and of buses without adequate pollution controls—but the private car is far less efficient at moving people than the bus. And both transport modes are less efficient, and therefore more of an environmental hazard, than rail.

Can a building that is beautiful (or at least not ugly) really be well-designed if it does not take into account its overall impact? And how do we balance the environmental destruction that one more parking garage will encourage with the potential loss of business from suburban dwellers who will not visit the city unless they can drive there and park?

It is not an easy balance to strike. I have no clear answer. But in the next two postings, I will try to weigh the factors and consider them in the larger context of the future of climate change and resource limitations which is moving toward us faster than we could have imagined even five years ago.

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Economics of Green

A recent report by the leading economic and strategic analysis firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers, The World in 2050, argues that, contrary to U.S. government assertions, reducing the world's carbon emissions 60% by 2050 would have little economic impact—and might have substantial economic benefits—if we did it right. The report compares several scenarios, with the emphasis on two of them, and concludes

The projections demonstrate that if countries sit back and adopt a "business as usual" approach, the result could be a more than doubling of global carbon emissions by 2050. Based on current scientific thinking, this could have potentially serious longer term implications in terms of global warming and related climate change.

On the other hand a scenario such as the "Green Growth Plus" strategy outlined in the report could allow for continued healthy growth whilst controlling carbon emissions.The Green Growth Plus strategy

incorporates possible emission reductions due to a greener fuel mix, annual energy efficiency gains over and above the historic trend, and widespread use of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. Of the scenarios considered in the report, only this ‘Green Growth Plus’ strategy stabilises atmospheric CO2 concentrations by 2050 at what the current scientific consensus suggests would be broadly acceptable levels.
The greener fuel mix considered in the report includes nuclear power, biofuels, and alternative power sources like wind and solar. It is, according to PriceWaterhouse, a strategy for maintaining prosperity without destroying the planet.

In the long run, we will have to develop a new type of prosperity that does not depend on growth. But without change along the lines suggested by PriceWaterhouse, we will not get to the long run. Green Growth Plus is not the ultimate solution to the problem of living with limitations, but it or something like it would be a step in that direction. And it is far more sane and hopeful than business as usual—the old style of growth that is slowly killing us.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

An Unforbidden City

Yesterday's posting described Orange County, China, a residential development that replicates an American suburb. In fairness to the Chinese, I should also point out that a team of environmental designers from Berkeley has recently proposed a far more sustainable form of development which, if adopted, bodes well for the future of China and could provide a model for other places. The full story is found in Unforbidden Cities, by Harrison Fraker, Jr.

The proposed community includes
  • a stronger emphasis on public transit and non-polluting forms of transport like bicycles;
  • community development centered around public transit stops; and
  • most important and exciting, extensive use of renewable energy and recycling to make the community as self-sufficient and carbon-neutral as possible.
The central discovery in this project was the potential of "whole system design":
As the project progressed, the Berkeley team became more and more excited by the potential for the whole system design concept to be a real breakthrough, to be a reproducible model for sustainable development throughout China and the developing world. The buildings are platforms for producing energy from renewable sources such as wind and sun. Sewage is not treated and dumped, but processed into energy, fertilizer, and water for irrigation. The landscape is more than eye pleasing; it is a multi-functional contributor to the systems. There is little or no waste, and all energy is generated on site. Most importantly, the neighborhood becomes essentially a self-sufficient unit, a circular system. It does not require the construction of expensive new power plants, new sewage treatment and water supply outside the system.
This approach to community development, however, had its downside as well.
The new design requires a radical transformation in the development process. In addition to constructing housing units, the developer has to build a comprehensive, on-site utility system of energy production, water supply, and sewage treatment, which is beyond the developer's traditional scope of work. It requires getting approvals through government agencies that are narrowly proscribed and not accustomed to thinking across their jurisdictions. Most importantly, it requires design and construction professionals to share responsibility and to work collaboratively, to which they are unaccustomed. It requires paying 15 to 20 percent of the costs up front. Even though the life cycle costs are significantly less than the cost of constructing new centralized utilities, the question becomes: Who owns, operates, and maintains the system, and how are they compensated for the service? Some models exist for funding and operating on site systems, but none is as comprehensive and integrated as the one proposed.
Despite these potential problems, the Fraker team's approach offers an alternative for community design—not just in China and the developing world, but in the advanced economies. It will be interesting to see whether it is widely adopted in China.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Suburbia as Theme Park

The suburbs have become controversial in the United States. Critics point to their many downsides: they create sprawl, use land unwisely, and are almost completely dependent on private cars and cheap gasoline for liveability. They are not really neighborhoods because the houses are too far apart and the shops are miles away in shopping centers and big box stores.

Defenders of the suburbs point to their popularity—an argument which is undeniably true but beside the point. In a world of climate change and limited resources, we can't forever expand, build on farmland, and drive everywhere. And we have to start putting essential services within walking distance of where we live. Already many communities have passed anti-sprawl ordnances, and Portland, Oregon, has become the first major city to make a serious effort to control sprawl. Very gradually, we are relearning the value of cities and the importance of open countryside. Too gradually, some would say—but we are learning. And the automobile-driven suburb is less and less the solution and more and part of the problem. It is, at least, losing some of its cachet.

Not so in China, where new residents recently celebrated the opening of Orange County, an almost perfect replica of a U.S. MacSuburb. In one of the most crowded countries on earth, the houses sprawl over enormous lots. In a country that is already seeing pollution numbers skyrocket, residents will be entirely dependent on cars to get around.

These are nice houses, considered individually. But as a development, Orange County looks pretty disheartening to an outside observer. It is precisely the sort of community that we can't afford any longer, in many ways.

In fairness to the Chinese, Orange County is a kind of theme park: like previous developments that replicated English and French villages, it is a copy of a "typical" American neighborhood. But the differences between Orange County and an English village are palpable and telling.

An English village, for all its faults, is a genuine community. It has neighborhood gathering places; people actually know each other, sometimes in more detail than is entirely comfortable; and you can walk to the shops.

An American MacSuburb, by contrast, is a collection of houses on big plots of land. The neighborhood gathering place is likely to be the mall; people may or may not know each other—in fact, may not see each other on weekdays at all; and the shops are miles away in the neighborhood mall and big box stores.

To an outside observer, a place like Orange County seems more a curiousity than a threat. It is far less dangerous than the Chinese passion for the automobile and the Chinese commitment to coal-fired electricity generation. But it's sad that, when Orange County's developer was seeking the typically American, he or she settled on a subdivision full of expensive MacMansions. That says a lot, and none of it very good, about the American way of life.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A Creative Idea from England

One proposal to control greenhouse gas emissions—individual carbon ration cards—is already part of the public discussion in England. New Statesman environmental writer Mark Lynas suggests that, as a kind of domestic cap-and-trade system, carbon cards should appeal both to the left and to the right: to the left, because they should help cut carbon emissions without hurting the poor as much as increased fuel taxes; to the right, because they could create a free market in carbon points while controlling emissions. Polly Toynbee, writing in the Guardian, suggests that carbon cards for transportation could be implemented quickly, although carbon cards for overall fuel usage (e.g., for heating and cooking) would take longer to set up.

The idea is simple and could probably be administered through the tax system:
  • Each household would receive a fair share of carbon ration points, based on an overall carbon emissions goal for the country.
  • In the early stages of the program, points would be used for transportation—fuel for cars would use up so many points per gallon, fuel for trains so many points per mile, and so on for all transportation that used fossil fuels.
  • Families and individuals could use their carbon cards to track their own usage and how many points remained in their accounts.
  • If a family needed additional carbon points, it could purchase them, either from families who did not need them, or, probably at a higher cost, from the carbon rationing authority.
  • If a family did not need all its carbon points, it could either sell the excess to other families or receive a tax refund in exchange for the unused points.
Rationing has a bad name both in England and in other places, and especially in the United States. But carbon rationing on this model would be less problematic in many ways than proposals like high fuel taxes.

Fuel taxes, which are designed to increase fuel prices and discourage consumption, have two major flaws:
  • Any tax which is high enough to cause drivers to cut back seriously is politically doomed. Drivers vote, and groups like English truck drivers, who effectively killed a fuel tax proposal from the Blair government a couple of years ago, organize and demonstrate against tax proposals; and
  • Any tax which is high enough to cut fuel consumption is likely to hurt low-income drivers the most.
Carbon rationing avoids the second of these problems. By careful use of their share, low-income families might even make money from rationing (so could high-income families if they wished). Carbon cards would reward fuel users for efficiency, not punish them for buying the fuel they do use.

As to the politics of carbon cards, the situation would not be simple. No one likes to be told that there are limits to their ability to do what they wish. But in fact, in the future, there will be limits. The central question is not whether limits will exist, but how to implement them. Carbon cards are one idea that is worth considering.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Greening and Non-Greening of England

A month in England puts a lot in perspective. The government's Iraq policy and the threat from British-born Islamist fanatics get most of the press in the United States, along with the future ot Tony Blair, which is very much in doubt—as is the future of his Labour Party.

For me, however, the question of Britain and climate change, which gets little coverage in the U.S., was far more interesting than the fate of Tony Blair. In the United States, climate change still appears to be controversial—not among scientists and those who understand the issue, to be sure, but among politicians in Washington. In Britain, there is no such controversy. Blair's government is publicly committed to making Britain a leader in curbing greenhouse gases, and the public seems to agree. His recent agreement with California on a carbon cap-and-trade arrangement was almost universally applauded in the United Kingdom. Even his critics thought it was a good idea, although with misgivings.

Those misgivings were well-founded. Critics like Mark Lynas of the New Statesman point out that the UK has the worst recycling rate in Europe; that the Blair government has in fact spent more on highway construction than on improving railroads and mass transit; and that greenhouse gas emissions from the British transportation sector have actually risen in the past five years.

A tourist can't really confirm any of this, but some changes are noticeable.
  • There are more big box stores, and an article in the Guardian business section confirms that the Blair government is encouraging this type of development because big boxes are more "efficient." (Economically, perhaps, but not for the environment.)
  • Automobile traffic is noticeably up in the English Lake District even though it is easier and less frustrating to leave the car at home and take the train (but see below). Everybody drives to the Lakes, and by the smell test, the air quality in the more popular towns is not what it was. Everywhere we went, not just in the Lakes, there seemed to be more traffic than last year.
  • Trains are overcrowded and often do not run on time. The overcrowding is good, in a way, because it means that people are using the trains. But it is bad because it makes the trains less attractive as an alternative to the private car.
  • The number of cheap package tours to holiday spots has increased dramatically. Air fares included in these packages are sometimes effectively zero, and are generally lower than similar fares in the U.S.
None of this is good for the environment in general, or greenhouse gas production in particular, and much of it is the result of government policies. Blair's commitment to controlling greenhouse gases, at the moment, seems chiefly rhetorical.

But the greening of England is not wholly an illusion. Blair's rhetoric may or may not be hollow, but outside the government there is a lot of ferment—a more-informed public discussion than in the U.S.; a number of good ideas, both old and new; and a growing interest in alternatives like green buildings and walkable shopping districts. These are encouraging. They will be the subject of future postings.

Friday, July 28, 2006

The Good Life

Our religious and philosophical traditions, both Eastern and Western, have a lot to say about the good life. Not one of them suggests that to live it we need 200-horsepower cars, big-box discount stores, 20-room mansions on three-acre lots, Olympic-quality swimming pools on our land, and closets and basements and recreation rooms and back yards and attics and garages full of stuff.

For much Eastern tradition, the good life is about enlightenment—about freeing oneself, by powerful spiritual discipline, from the suffering that is the common lot of humanity. This does not necessarily mean a retreat into individual meditation. Eastern spirituality has produced great leaders like Gandhi and the Dahlai Lama whose concern for social justice and human dignity is (or was) clear in everything they did. But there is nothing in Eastern tradition that identifies justice or dignity—and hence the good life—with the accumulation of stuff or driving 100 mph on the open road. The prevailing ideology of economic growth is foreign to Eastern tradition.

In the West, where the prevailing ideology got its start, religion and philosophy are united in speaking against it. The Old Testament prophets emphasized justice and mercy to the poor, and they pointed out that riches could be a barrier, not a bridge, to the good life. Christianity's founder took a similar position, even teaching that riches not only could be but were a barrier to the Kingdom of Heaven. Islam to this day emphasizes concern for the poor, social justice, and spiritual discipline over accumulation of stuff.

Western ethical thinkers sought the good life in qualities as diverse as moderation, self-realization, obedience to conscience, and social justice—among others. Western philosophy even on occasion (as in the teachings of the Stoics) taught a discipline of self-denial that rivaled that of Christian and Buddhist monks. A determined reader might find some support for our prevailing ideology of growth in Jeremy Bentham's Utilitarianism, but this would be wrong. Bentham was concerned chiefly, though somewhat eccentrically and wrongheadedly, with social justice and reform. Nowhere in Western philosophy do you find support for the notion that virtue and happiness are identical with more and more stuff and faster and faster cars. Philosophers, East and West, seem as certain on this point as their religious counterparts.

How, then, did we come to identify the good life with constant economic growth? The answer is deceptively simple: the ideology of economic growth, with its accompanying economic structure, produced prosperity as no previous ideology or structure had. What it could not do was to control its own excesses. For that, we need to turn to our older and wiser traditions. They do not necessarily tell us to give up all the good things we have, but they point out that happiness does not reside in things alone. Enough food and shelter are preconditions for happiness and the good life—hence the emphasis in our traditions on mitigating or eliminating involuntary poverty. But we attain the good life by living well—by loving our neighbors and our families, being good citizens, and doing our work to the best of our ability—not by getting and spending alone.

In a future where growth will be limited by finite supplies of natural resources, the increased cost for extracting and processing them, and the need to cut greenhouse gases, that is good news. The economy cannot grow forever, but this is not the end of the world or of civilization. It is a new challenge. Our religious and philosophical traditions, if we understand them rightly, can help us to meet it.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Changing Separately and Together

I grew up in a tradition, liberal Quakerism, that puts great emphasis on individual action for good causes. Quakers often focus on changes in personal behavior, in part because our own behavior is within our control. The actions of policy makers, governments, corporations, and even other individuals are subject only indirectly to our control or even influence. We can try to persuade policy makers, and we can buy only morally-acceptable products, but in the end, our voice is small and weak compared to the forces arrayed against us. Our example may persuade, and if it does not, at least we did what was available to us.

As on other issues, so, it may seem, with climate change. We may or may not transform the world, but we can transform ourselves. We can choose to insulate our houses, thereby using less fuel to heat and cool them, for example. We can turn off lights. We can drive less or not at all. And so forth.

The problem is that, in this case, individual behavior changes not only won't, but can't, do the job. If everyone who worries about climate change cut his or her greenhouse gas emissions back to 28% of what they are now—a figure that climate scientists say we have to reach by 2050—that would be a small part of the pie because there aren't, as yet, enough people willing to make what they fear would be drastic and crippling changes in lifestyle. Even if there were, our major institutions, like transit, architecture, city planning, food distribution, and other buying and selling, need rethinking and restructuring, or all our individual changes will mean hardship for us without leading to the transformation that is needed.

This does not mean that cutting back is useless. It's important to be cutting back when we are advocating that others cut back and that society change its ways of doing its business. But it does mean that people who, because of their situations, are limited in the amount they can cut back, need not feel guilty if they are doing what they can do and working in other ways toward solutions.

There are any number of people, for example, who have to drive everywhere because of where they live and the inadequacy of our public transit. Taking light rail or the bus isn't an option for these people because neither is available where they are. It would be unfair of me to argue that these people should feel guilty, even though I never drive anywhere. I live in a city where I can get public transit or walk to my destinations. What I can, and do, say is that, on a policy level, we need to invest heavily in the cleanest and most efficient public transit network we can develop, and quickly, and we need to stop building our communities as if everybody can just go on driving everywhere. And if somebody who has no choice but to use a car wants to join in calling for better transit, I think that is a good thing. And I won't suggest—again, because it would be unfair—that people in this situation are somehow failing if they don't renounce driving immediately. They are doing the best they can, and in any case, a decision to renounce driving is not only not possible for them, but does little to change the poor planning and design that caused their dilemma in the first place.

Individual change, that is, has its limitations—especially in dealing with a very large problem like climate change. We can and should change our lives to cut our own individual greenhouse gas emissions. But we also, and simultaneously, need new designs, new technologies, new ideologies. Those who can't change to a completely clean life—and that includes all of us—need not thereby stop working for a sustainable world. We can change separately, and this is both admirable and helpful. But it is even more important that we find ways to change together, as a society.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Transforming a City

Here is a story of hope. A city famous for chaos, traffic, pollution, poorly-maintained public space, bad public services, misery, and squalor transforms itself into a more liveable, happier place because of one mayor's determination and an imaginative redevelopment plan. That city exists, but it is not in the United States, Europe, or the prosperous places of Asia. It is Bogota, Colombia. The full story is in The Tyee, a Vancouver-based news web site.

Bogota's situation looked hopeless, and its transformation may or may not provide a model for other places. Each city is different. But the story is instructive.

The city suffered from extreme class divisions. Rich residents drove everywhere, resulting in heavy automobile traffic. They parked anywhere they wanted, including (illegally) on sidewalks. They fenced in public parks for their own private use. And most development money in Bogota went for highway improvements.

Following his election, Mayor Enrique Peñalosa decided to change all that. He improved public services, removed the fences from the parks, got cars off the sidewalks and off the streets, and created an efficient, high-speed bus system so that everyone could still get to work and other destinations. He built bicycle lanes. His guiding principle was not traditional economic growth, but happiness.

In the United States, the writers of the Declaration of Independence ranked "the pursuit of happiness" with life and liberty as primary human rights. As the nation grew, we forgot that happiness means happiness, not economic growth, and "pursuit of happiness" became "pursuit of a greater Gross Domestic Product." This ideology came to dominate Western economics, and the making and buying of things—not happiness—became the goal of economic policy.

Peñalosa decided to look again at that goal, and realized that his city could never be as rich as, say, New York or London—but it could be happier, and it could have quality of life that actually surpassed that of richer places. His programs haven't achieved all of this, but they have moved Bogota closer to happiness. And happiness, after all, is the real goal, even of growth-centered economics.

The pursuit of happiness, of course, is of little use if human society has no future. Bogota's transformation made the city more happy, and it also made it more sustainable—fewer people in cars, more people on buses, bicycles, and foot. What Peñalosa did in Bogota showed that in order to have a future, we need not destroy our own happiness. That may be the most important lesson we can draw from Bogota.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Not Just a Rich Nations' Problem

Critics of efforts to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions often treat the problem as if the only countries with an interest in global warming were the developed countries. Poor countries, it is argued, have, or should have, other priorities like feeding their populations, controlling disease, and economic development. See, for example, the recent article by John A. Baden, PhD at The argument advanced by Baden, an advocate of pure free-market economics, implies that global warming is a trendy, trivial problem that appeals to celebrities (some mentioned in the article) and frivolous leftists, while the trendy left ignores real problems like hunger and disease.

Quite apart from whether pure free-market economics will (or can) actually help lift poor nations out of their current plight—a debatable proposition—the argument that poor countries have no national interest in global warming is simply false. It is not in the interest of poor countries to experience droughts, crop failures, and other problems which, scientists generally agree, will result from global warming.

The British Environment Minister, Hilary Benn, gave a good summary of the effect of global warming on poor countries in an announcement of a new British initiative on climate change on July 14. The Government of England is controlled by the Labour Party, which does not, to be sure, advocate pure free-market economics. But Benn is likewise not one of the celebrities unfairly stigmatized by Baden's article. His announcement is, in fact, a powerful refutation of the illusion that global warming is only an issue in rich countries. It is not. We are all on this planet together. And our old ideologies—including free-market economics and old-style socialism—will not save us. Only new thinking and concerted effort to change will do that.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Interstate Highways at 50

A week or two ago, the U.S. began celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Interstate Highway System. "Celebrating" is perhaps too strong a word for what is actually happening. The observance includes a cross-country trip recreating Dwight Eisenhower's cross-country trip in 1917 that eventually led him to propose the system; a few feature spots on network television; and some newspaper articles, including an opinion piece in the New York Times Magazine.

This is as it should be. The results of the Interstate experiment are mixed. The network is badly in need of repair in many places. And the long-term future of cross-country driving will soon be in question anyway—or should be. The celebration should be muted, if there is to be any at all.

The Interstate system is the single largest public works program in history, dwarfing the Great Wall of China and the many federal projects of the Great Depression. There is nothing quite like it anywhere else. Most countries are too small to build roads on this scale, and those that are large enough, like China, have until recently lacked the funds and the will to build an equivalent network. Considered solely as a large-scale construction project, the Interstate System is a remarkable achievement.

Those who celebrate the Interstate point to its role in building commerce, connecting the different regions of the U.S. with each other, providing jobs, and similar benefits. Critics notice that the Interstate system has often destroyed city neighborhoods, facilitated suburban sprawl, and in many places led to larger and larger traffic jams despite incessant expansion of the system. It seems that, with roads as with the Field of Dreams, if you build it they (the cars) will come. And keep on coming, until the road is a slow-moving parking lot.

The conventional solution to traffic jams is to build more roads—which promptly fill up with more cars. It is no accident that in the country with the largest system of roads and highways, including the Interstates, per capita automobile usage is the highest in the world. Or that per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. are greater than in most other developed countries.

In the long run, the Interstate Highway System, for all its virtues, may well be seen as a mistake. It is interesting, and rather depressing, to speculate on what the U.S. might have become had it spent the cost of the Interstates improving railroads and developing ways of moving people and generating power that used energy more cleanly and efficiently. We did not do that, and our failure to use our resources wisely in the past will make the future that much more difficult.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Oil, Peaking?

The peak oil theory, which argues that at some point—either now or in the future, depending on whom you consult—oil reserves will reach peak production and then decline, with potentially catastrophic effects on our civilization, is the subject of furious controversy. Few, apart from a small number of commentators who believe that the market will provide a "bottomless well" of energy, question the theory's basic premise: that oil is a finite resource which will eventually run out and leave a major gap in energy supplies. The disagreement is over geology and arithmetic. Some researchers believe peak oil has already arrived; some believe it will arrive in the near future; and others believe the future is much farther off. provides a good introduction to the theory and the controversy

Environmentalists like Karen Street point out, quite rightly, that many of the remedies suggested for the feared peak oil disruptions would be worse than the disease. For them, the central issue is not that we are running out of oil, much less of fossil-based energy, but that we are already burning too much of it for our own health and that of the planet. In theory we could convert coal to synthetic fuel for uses where only liquid would do, and burn coal directly for other uses, for about a thousand years. This would solve the peak oil problem, but, according to climate change experts, at a cost that is too heavy, both for us and for the earth.

The scientific consensus is that our heavy use of fossil fuels is making the planet warmer, threatening significant rises in sea levels and average temperatures that could inundate many cities and threaten many species—quite possibly including our own. We cannot solve the problem of peak oil, which will arrive at some point, by tweaking the supply side of the equation. The environmental risks are simply too great.

In a sense, the question of whether we are actually reaching peak oil is less important than the perception that we are, and the disruptions this perception could cause. The political analyst Gwynne Dyer points out in "Oil: The Party is Over" that if the markets decide we have reached peak oil—never mind what the actual situation may be—oil prices will "soar out of sight overnight." In a society designed to run on cheap oil, the disruptions would be enormous. It might even seem like the end of civilization as we know it (a favorite phrase among the more ardent peak oil theorists).

Both the environmentalists and Gwynne Dyer are right. Peak oil is a problem with only one obvious remedy: using less oil. And even the perception that it has arrived hardly bears thinking about because of the disruption it might cause.

The prospects of climate change in the long run and oil-price-induced recession in the short run are not attractive. But they do provide an opportunity to advance the argument for changes in the way we manage our civilization. If we are going to run short of oil anyway, and the substitutes for it do as much or even more damage to the environment than it does, it follows that we cannot go on as we have. One way or another, business as usual is going to end. This does not mean the situation is hopeless because business as usual, the way we have done it in the past, has been less than ideal. The end of cheap oil gives us a chance to do better—and it "concentrates the mind wonderfully," as Samuel Johnson would put it. Or it should.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

A Death in the Neighborhood—Part 2

The closing of one of our neighborhood supermarkets was a blow to the neighborhood (See "A Death in the Neighborhood—Part 1.") Fortunately, a very good local grocery chain has now bought the site and plans to open a new store on it later this year or early next. "Now Hiring" signs are already up, and the site is full of workers and construction vans. In the long run, what had been a sad death may turn out to be an improvement for the neighborhood.

The new owners plan to rehabilitate the old building rather than tearing it down and rebuilding. This will not only save money for them; it will save energy and resources for the planet. Big-box stores like this old supermarket were designed to be disposable, but they need not be. In any future worth mentioning, we will need to use existing buildings creatively, unless they have gone irretrievably to the bad.

So our neighborhood will get a good store, locally-owned, with high-quality foods, and within walking distance of a very large population. This is a better ending than the more typical story: neighborhood store (and shopping district) dies a slow, agonizing death because of competition from big-box stores outside of town.

In the long run, driving to the big box store will become too expensive and too dangerous for the environment, and we will need the neighborhood store again. Many towns won't have it. Our neighborhood, luckily, will.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Ideology Run Amok

In the Soviet Union in 1968, a small party of visitors was standing near a beautiful lake in Karelia. The group, eight from the U.S., eight from Great Britain, and eight from the Soviet Union, was there as part of a Quaker-sponsored work camp and seminar. I was among them.

Karelia is just across the border from Finland, a country of pine forests, snow in winter, and astonishingly blue lakes. And here, not a quarter of a mile from where we were standing, was a paper mill pumping raw sewage into one of those lakes. One of the party, not from the Soviet Union, asked our guide about pollution.

"That is not a problem under socialism," the guide replied. And still the plant pumped its refuse into the lake.

Years later, during the reunification of Germany, the reorganized government discovered to its horror that almost no East German manufacturing plants had pollution controls of any kind—let alone controls that met Western European standards. Pollution, you see, was not a problem under socialism. It occurred only under capitalism.

The problems with Eastern European pollution didn't surprise me. I had stood less than a quarter of a mile from a plant that was actively polluting a lake and heard a Soviet bureaucrat argue that neither I nor anyone else in the party was seeing what we plainly were seeing. Eastern European and Soviet plant managers had production quotas to meet, and never mind the effect on the environment or, for that matter, the bodies of the workers.

In fairness to those plant managers, we need to remind ourselves repeatedly that the capitalist West only discovered the environment after uncontrolled industrial pollution had already done quite a lot of damage. And only in the last forty years have we begun to realize just how serious that damage was. An industrial ideology that puts its faith chiefly in the economic bottom line—which, in their different ways, unrestrained market capitalism and Soviet-style socialism are—is always a threat to the environment unless other forces intervene to hold it back.

Now we must begin to pick up the pieces. But as we try to find ways to do so, I worry—a lot—about China. The Chinese are not Soviet-style socialists, and they are not laissez-faire capitalists. It is hard to put them in any category but their own. Unlike industrialists in the West, they are aware of the costs of what they are doing. But they are caught up in the same Faustian bargain that entrapped both the West and its Communist opposite numbers. Industrial development on the traditional model uses a lot of fossil fuels and creates a lot of pollution. To develop, one must put the environment at risk.

Or so it has been in the past. A society bent on growth, wealth, and production simply did not take the environment into account. Now we are learning that this was a mistake. Will we find new ways of development fast enough? And, just as important, will China?

Monday, June 12, 2006

Bottomless Wells

A few days ago I was in a bookstore looking for a book that I never found. At the end of one set of bookshelves, prominently displayed on a rack of featured books, was The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy, by Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills. An astonishing title in a finite world governed by the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. Of course we will run out of energy—or, more correctly, the fuel we need to produce energy—but no one now living will see that day. We can burn coal for a thousand years, build nuclear power plants, even extract energy from silicon, according to Huber and Mills. Even if they are right, a thousand years' supply of energy, or ten thousand, is not "endless."

That, at least is what logic and history tell us. A thousand or ten thousand years is a long time in the history of civilization, but it is a minor blip in geological time. It is even a short time in the human story if you count prehistory. Homo sapiens has been here about a quarter of million years; our ancestors, for just over 2 million years before us. Modern use of energy dates back 200-500 years, depending on one's definition of "modern." Suddenly a thousand years does not seem so long, and the well seems less bottomless. Our ancestors, had they used oil and coal or even the silicon that Huber and Mills see as a practical alternative, would have used up their fuel supplies hundreds of thousands of years before we came on the scene.

Our ancestors, of course, did not even discover coal and oil. They evolved into us. And we discovered coal and oil and began burning them, not knowing until recently how badly we were damaging the environment. We could not have known; the science that allowed us to know did not exist when the industrial age began.

Even supposing that Huber and Mills are right about the world's seemingly endless energy potential, they are wrong on this key point: We do not always know the consequences of our energy use. And those consequences are not always benign. When we extract energy, we must proceed with care and use the energy wisely and carefully. If we don't, we may make our world unliveable. That is what The Bottomless Well leaves out. And by leaving it out, the theory moves from the merely flawed to the dangerously illusory.

There is a precedent that shows the danger of this kind of illusion. During the late Cold War, the discipline of "nuclear strategy" or "nuclear warfighting" had a very brief revival after being dormant through the 1960s and 1970s. Roughly, it was an attempt to project "scientifically" how many casualties a nation could sustain in a nuclear war and still "survive" as a nation. Nuclear warfighting was a delusion, pure and simple. A United States (or Soviet Union) that had lost a million citizens at a stroke, along with a major city or two, would be shattered, and the radiation released would damage generations of humans, plants and animals to come. And that, in the nuclear warfighting world, was a "small," "survivable" war.

I make this brief excursion into the netherworld of nuclear strategy because, in a quieter way, the bottomless well thesis could be just as destructive. The nuclear strategists allowed Reagan-era policymakers to think that nuclear war was winnable, not mutual suicide. The bottomless well theorists allow us to think that it's perfectly okay to go on burning fuel and driving SUVs and leaving all the lights on. But you can't fight nuclear war; you can only die in it—if you are lucky—or survive a brief time in a world that is uninhabitable. And you can't go on using energy as if the supply is never going to run out. It will, and in the meantime, we may find ourselves surviving a brief time in a world that is uninhabitable.

We have so far avoided nuclear war, although the future is not guaranteed. Whether we can avoid the consequences of our fecklessness about energy is still very much in question. We can only do so by changing our ways of living, getting from place to place, growing our food, and making the goods we need. The Bottomless Well essentially argues that our current ways are just fine, thanks. That is an argument which could kill us all.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Parking Lots

There are at least four things wrong with the private car as a primary mode of transportation:
  • It uses enormous amounts of fossil fuels. Even an efficient car (which in the U.S. seems to be defined as 25-50 miles per gallon) will use as much as 180 gallons per year for a daily commute of 10 miles each way. Inefficient cars use a lot more. All of this based on highway driving, but
  • It gets stuck in traffic jams, sometimes for an hour each way. This raises fuel usage. This in turn makes it more damaging to the environment than it might be without traffic jams. Even assuming the best-case scenario (free flowing traffic moving steadily at optimum speed), the car still has a third problem
  • It generates enormous amounts of greenhouse gases, especially when used on a regular basis by millions of commuters. And when you arrive at your destination
  • You have to put it somewhere. This is either on the street or in a garage. Or in a surface parking lot.
You don't always notice parking lots as you walk around a city. We are so used to them that we tune them out. But it is harder to tune out the damage that they do to the city. They break up the fabric of the street. They make the city hotter than it otherwise might be—less shade and more paving. And if there are enough of them, they create a bombed-out wasteland like downtown Houston.

As if that weren't enough, parking lots make a great deal of money for their owners, who usually pay the attendants a pittance and are taxed at a low rate because property taxes are based on the value of buildings and not land. The value of parking lots as money-spinners often leads parking lot owners to supplement the salaries of public officials in the hope of favorable treatment. This does not improve the quality of governance in cities.

The high profit margin of parking, combined with a badly designed property tax system (in most cities) removes any incentive to put buildings, even bad ones, on the parking wasteland, thus hampering development and making the city less attractive for people who might want to live there or attend events there. Of course, if you don't have ample parking, people won't come to events because they can't think of any way to get to them except by car. But if you do have ample parking, the city will be part wasteland and correspondingly unattractive. It's a wonder that cities work at all in the age of the private car and the parking lot. Some, like Houston, don't, at least not at night: there is usually nobody around the downtown. It is dead. It is eerie. It is depressing.

As if that weren't enough, parking lots do fearful damage to the environment. They encourage people to drive to work, which is bad for a start. They do more damage to water runoff than well-designed buildings or small parks. They heat up the city, as previously noted. And their entrances and exits create traffic jams, which in turn decrease the efficiency of their customers' cars and help increase the greenhouse gases that those cars generate.

Houston is an extreme example—a small number of mediocre skyscrapers surrounded by a bombed-out wasteland—but even older cities are succumbing to the ravages of parking. Another reason why our love affair with the car has become dysfunctional.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Trouble with Ideology

One of the reasons we are running into trouble is our reigning ideologies. In a world with limits—which ours is—they have become dysfunctional.

Consider a minor example with major effects: the ideology of the frontier in the United States. The frontier was the edge of the country, with wild country beyond, and expansion meant pushing back and conquering the frontier. There was always more room; it was a big country.

In fact, the "wild country" had residents with a culture and civilization of their own, but in frontier mythology, they were savages and enemies to be conquered in the name of progress. When the continental U.S. had become 48 states (instead of a mix of states, territories, and "wild country"), the frontier was physically closed. But it remained part of U.S. mythology, and not only in Western movies. The expansion of suburbs around our cities, which involves "conquering" farmland, is arguably patterned on the conquest of the West, although without the bloodshed. The spread of suburbs even involves a change of culture, from rural to suburban, and dislocation of existing residents to new places. We want to move out of the city and into the vast untamed. Or into a suburb with houses so far apart that they are effectively isolated and unreachable without cars. It should come as no surprise that advertisements for cars picture vast expanses of empty countryside, for that is how we think of the suburbs, at least in fond imagination.

The realities, both of the real frontier and of the suburbs, could not be more different from the myth. The movement of the real frontier meant conquering and killing residents—an expansion similar to that of the Roman empire. The reality of the suburbs is isolation, endless big box stores and parking lots, enormous traffic jams, out-of-control consumption of fossil fuels, and the destruction of the countryside.

Far more insidious, however, is the reigning ideology of growth. In the 19th Century, both socialist and capitalist thinkers assumed that unlimited growth was possible. In our own time, socialism has faded from the picture in the U.S. Free-market ideology seems triumphant. But what has persisted is the ideology of growth. We measure our economic health, our prosperity, and our quality of life by our ability to produce and consume more and more stuff. We call this "economic growth," and it does produce prosperity of a kind—but at the expense of our environment, our health, and our overall quality of life.

The problem for the future is not just rebuilding our cities or our economic systems. It is finding new ways to think about prosperity and quality of life. Europeans are closer to solving this problem than we in the U.S., but they, too, have not fully succeeded. The idea of constant growth as the engine of progress and the good life has been around a long time. If there is to be a long-term future, we will need to find a replacement for it.

Friday, May 26, 2006

A Death in the Neighborhood—Part 1

Walking to the train yesterday, I passed what used to be the best supermarket in the neighborhood. Since the end of March it has been a boarded-up hulk. It closed, not because it was losing money (it wasn't), but because it could not expand. The owner tried to buy more land, but our local transit authority, which owned the land, claimed it couldn't sell because of tax problems.

This was not exactly a market failure—the store was viable and could have gone on more or less as it was. But the owner's desire to expand was a result of the market's constant pressure to make food stores into one-stop shops: pharmacies, catering services, hardware stores, grocery stores, photo developers, florists, you name it. In the space he had, the store's owner could not provide all these services.

Why is it that grocery stores (which is what supermarkets used to be) have become afflicted with galloping featuritis? The grocery business is risky, with small profit margins, so part of the pressure for expansion is a desire to increase profit margins. But part of it is the result of poor land use. Most supermarkets now are located in the suburbs, which are sprawling and car-dependent. People hate to drive from one store to another, using more and more fuel and struggling to find parking space; they would rather shop in one place. Hence the advent of everything-stores like Giant and Wal-Mart, which provide food, medicine, hardware, toys, and just about everything else under one roof. A large grocery store, which is what our local supermarket was, can't hope to compete with this when its customers can simply drive to the suburbs and find commercial palaces that also undercut the grocery store's prices.

The closure of this store had nothing to do with quality. The meat, fish, and produce were generally better than those found in the everything stores. The selection of specialty items like olive oil was often (though not always) better than its competitors. It was, in other words, a very good place to shop. It just could not be all things to all people.

The saddest part of the whole story is that this market was a genuine neighborhood store. It was, of course, a supermarket, which meant that it was a big box store with a large parking lot. But it fronted on the main street, and it was within walking distance of a large population, including many elderly people. The staff knew the customers (one of them once asked me why I was shopping in the afternoon rather than my usual morning time). The store was located next to a commuter train station, so you could pick up something for dinner on your way home. Checkout times were short, and checkout clerks were friendly and, as with the rest of the staff, knew many of their customers by sight.

The neighborhood will survive, but the loss of this store is a major blow. There is another supermarket about a quarter mile up the street. Its quality is generally poor, and checkout lines are human traffic jams even when there are relatively few shoppers in the store. A lot more people than before will choose to shop outside the neighborhood, which means longer drives and more use of gasoline (and more greenhouse gas emissions). And the neighborhood is saddled with a decaying building and its surrounding parking lot. If no one buys the property and develops it, it will be a lasting hole in what remains of the fabric of the street.

In the future, we will need more neighborhood stores, not fewer, within easy walking distance. We can't afford to lose the ones we have.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Public Transit—How to Do It

Over the weekend I was in Boston visiting my daughter. Boston and Cambridge are among my favorite places. They are attractive, walkable, dynamic—and, most importantly for this article, easy to get around in. Bostonians may not agree, but the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) is an example of how to do public transit well, especially within the city and immediate suburbs.

How do they do it? Let me count the ways:
  • A simple, affordable fare structure. Within the city and nearby suburbs, bus fares are 90¢; subway fares are $1.25. Transfers between buses and from one subway line to another are free. Transfers between buses and subways cost 35¢, and they are more complex than they should be, but on the whole, a new transit user in Boston can grasp the fare structure quickly and will find it reasonably priced.
  • Simple and fast fare collection. One of the most unattractive parts of using public transit is the long lines at bus stops and subway ticket booths. Like many European cities, the MBTA has reduced delays in fare collection both by simplifying the fare structure and by using a simpler system at the collection point. Bus fare boxes are locked to discourage holdups, but MBTA doesn't insist on running paper money through a scanner that may or may not work. Drivers take bills and put them through a slot into a collection box. At subway stops, riders purchase tokens at the ticket booth, which is separate from the subway turnstile. They then use the token to open the subway turnstile. Lines at the turnstiles can still be long at rush hour, but separating token purchase from entry to the system speeds up everybody's ride.
  • Easy navigation. Even new users will find MBTA buses and subways easy to navigage, at least within the city and nearby suburbs. Bus stops have maps and schedules. Subway stops have schematic maps of the system similar to the famous map of the London Underground. Most U.S. subway systems have schematic maps, but bus maps and schedules at bus stops are rare in the U.S. Boston is the only place I have seen them.
  • A diverse ridership. Diversity of ridership is not, of course, within MBTA's control, but a simple and user-friendly system encourages riders of all social and economic backgrounds to use the system rather than struggle with downtown Boston traffic and parking. MBTA's buses and subways are well-used at most hours by a crowd ranging from students and young families of all races to MIT and Harvard professors. No one is likely to feel out of place on the T (the local short name for the system). This is not always true of in-city transit systems.
MBTA's ease of use and simplicity are less evident in its extensive network of commuter rail, but this is a common problem with local transit authorities who manage commuter rail systems. Most commuter rail systems predate the transit authorities, require higher capital investment, and are affiliated with different unions. Fares on them are therefore higher and more complex, including a system of fare zones that is the antithesis of a user-friendly fare structure, but is a necessity given the higher cost of maintaining rail systems.

Still, with the exception of the rail system, the T may be the easiest-to-use transit system in the U.S. If it is not quite up to European standards, it is very close.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Doing the Math, a San Francisco Bay area web site, has posted a page to help drivers calculate the true cost of commuting to work by car. It includes an estimate of social costs (about 33¢ per mile, which may be low but is a good working number). Even leaving out the social costs, however, the cost of commuting to work is high enough to raise some eyebrows.

Assuming Bay Area insurance and fuel costs, and a relatively short commute (10 miles each way), plus an average daily non-commuting mileage of 4—almost certainly low if it counts weekends—the direct costs of commuting work out to $5676.00 per year. This doesn't count car payments, although it does include depreciation. Add in the social costs, and the true cost of commuting becomes $7939.00 per year for the Bay Area.

Many Bay Area costs are high compared to the rest of the country—including public transit, although Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) is fast, safe, convenient, and well worth the fare. BART is not, however, expensive compared to driving. A daily round-trip commute from Fremont, CA, to the Civic Center in San Francisco, five days per week, would cost $2,600.00, with fewer of the social costs associated with commuting by car.

The Bay Area cost calculator works for other areas of the country; you simply insert your actual cost of driving, depreciation, etc., and you can get a rough idea of the direct costs of driving. Not having a car, I used Bay Area estimates (the defaults on the calculator) and assumed a daily commute of 10 miles each way (the distance from my home to downtown Philadelphia). Auto insurance almost certainly costs more in Philadelphia than in the Bay Area because it costs more in Philadelphia than almost anywhere else in the United States. Depreciation costs may also be higher than in the Bay Area because of poorer highway maintenance. Still, the figures for the Bay Area are probably close to the figures for most cities.

At Bay Area prices, a commuter would save over $3,000.00 per year by selling the car and taking BART to work. Philadelphia's transit system is less efficient, but it is also a lot cheaper. Using a monthly pass, that same commuter would spend $720.00 per year on basic commuting, plus about $500.00 for an occasional taxi ride—a saving of nearly $4,500.00 per year.

Driving to work is not, in other words, either cheap or efficient.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Technological Fixes for Cars

There are a lot of technological fixes for private cars that promise lower fuel usage and cleaner-burning engines. The simplest and quickest to implement would be better engine design. It is no accident that in markets where fuel prices reflect the world market more closely (i.e., are higher) than in the U.S., fuel efficiency is a primary goal of automotive design.

Fuels made from renewable resources—ethanol and methanol are the ones I know about—could improve gas mileage, although at least one method of making ethanol consumes quite a lot of fossil fuel. In the long run there is talk of fuel cells and even hydrogen-powered vehicles.

All this sounds encouraging if the central question is how to keep people driving from place to place. But this is the wrong question. All the technological fixes in the world will not change the private car's basic inefficiency as a way of moving people. A well-designed, fuel-efficient bus that holds 40 passengers takes the place of at least eight (assuming the cars are filled with a driver and four passengers), or, in a typical U.S. rush hour, 35-40 cars. That is an enormous saving in highway space—and in parking space when the passengers arrive at their destination. And the bus is the least efficient form of mass transit.

The real puzzle we have to solve is how to preserve mobility. No one doubts that people have to get from place to place, or that they should be able to do so, quickly and efficiently. More efficient cars will make people mobile, although in many cities drivers now spend upwards of an hour each day in traffic jams. The problem of traffic jams alone shows that cars are not a permanent solution. The more people drive, the more crowded the roads get, and the more we build roads and parking lots that fill up almost as rapidly as we can build them. And every day that we substitute technological fixes for hard thinking about the fundamental problem of moving people is a day that we draw down scarce petroleum resources and add more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Scurrying for Cover

Politicians are scurrying for cover throughout the United States. Gas is above $3.00/gallon, and the public is outraged. So we have investigations of price gouging, proposals for tax rebates, requests for Internal Revenue Service records for oil companies—on and on and on.

What no politician will do is tell people the truth: The price of gasoline is getting higher because there is not enough gas to fill the demand. The market is actually doing what the market is supposed to do. Prices are supposed to rise in a period of high demand and short supply.

Outside of official Washington, this is common knowledge. Economists from all parts of the spectrum have been pointing out that the only remedy for high gas prices is to use less gas by driving less, buying fuel-efficient vehicles, inflating tires to the proper pressure, and other short-term economies.

The underlying problem is that higher fuel prices are now structural. Oil is becoming a scarce commodity, even though on the surface there may appear to be a glut. There is only so much oil in the earth. If we use up the supply, we will not be able to buy it, even at double, triple, or ten, or a hundred times current prices. There will be none left. We can postpone this day, and by burning less fossil fuel we may also help to postpone the full effect of global warming. But we cannot prevent it from happening as long as we burn fossil fuels.

What we can't do is go on burning fossil fuels as if the supply were infinite and greenhouse gases did not exist. Changing our ways may be painful, but we really have no choice. Is anybody in Washington going to say this? An interesting question, because you don't get elected in the U.S. by telling people that the cost of their ride is going to go up.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Jane Jacobs 1916-2006

Everyone who loves cities and cares about their future will miss the voice and presence of Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Her approach to cities, which stressed the importance of neighborhoods and argued that population density was one of the virtues of urban life, changed city planning forever. When she first wrote, the conventional wisdom was that cities could be saved by knocking down established neighborhoods and building highways and high-rise buildings in parkland. Few believe that now, largely because of the thinking and writing of one woman who took the trouble to look at cities on the ground and learn how they worked.

We are still learning from her.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Gasoline Prices

Karen Street, in A Musing Environment, has posted a thorough discussion of gasoline prices. It is well worth reading.

In the long run, the problem with gas prices is the problem with our oil-based society: The supply of oil is finite, so in the long run we must use less of it—and even then eventually we will run out. This and the environmental effects of burning fossil fuels make the private, oil-based automobile untenable in the long term.

We can only get to the long term by finding alternatives to the private automobile, and not just to cars that run on fossil fuels. If everyone drives a private car, everyone will need space to park, and parking lots destroy natural water runoff, trees and grass that can help to mitigate the effect of greenhouse gases, and the beauty of our world, among other things. So does more and more highway construction. We can't go on this way.

The danger is that politicians will not talk about the real problem, instead focusing on the price of fuel, price gouging, and similar issues. These are real problems—high prices hurt ordinary people, and gouging does happen—but they are not the fundamental difficulty.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Shrinking but Wealthier Cities

Two recent studies bring mixed news about cities in the United States. A census report cited by the Associated Press finds that people are leaving the older cities and moving to the suburbs to find cheaper housing and more space. At the same time, a new study from the University of Virginia concludes that city centers are growing in wealth and value.

The two studies do not contradict each other. City centers are becoming the province of smaller but wealthier families and young people who can afford to live near exciting restaurants, museums, music, and theaters. People with less money cannot afford the cost of housing in the growth areas of cities, so they move out where housing is cheaper.

This rings true for Philadelphia, where downtown (Center City to Philadelphians) is having a condo boom at unheard-of prices, while the outlying neighborhoods are losing people and wealth. Center City is the most exciting place in the region. The neighborhoods are struggling, except those areas that are near the Center City boomtown. The city is losing population and jobs, while paradoxically becoming wealthier, at least in some places.

For the future, the continued move to the suburbs is ominous. It is possible to live in the city without a private car—our family has done it for twenty years. The same cannot be said of the far suburbs, where isolation awaits any family that tries to rely on feet or public transportation. In the long run, we must live closer together to save energy, resources, and, ultimately, the planet. But that is not the trend. The cities are getting wealthier, but they are getting smaller. And the environment, which means all of us, is paying the price.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Avoiding the Obvious

In 1972, the Club of Rome, an ad hoc group of intellectuals, published The Limits to Growth, a short work that challenged conventional ideas about economic growth. Using computer simulations, the Club of Rome economists reached two major conclusions:
  • Exponential growth in population and consumption of resources was not possible for the long run and, if not stopped, would lead to severe economic problems and even collapse; and
  • Collapse could be avoided by altering our use of resources and controlling population growth to create a more sustainable society.

A summary of the report is on the Club of Rome web site. In a finite world, the report's conclusions and its computer analysis seemed, to me at least, both obvious and sensible.

The reaction to the report, however, was both clamorous and enlightening. Critics accused the Club of Rome of doomsaying, bad analysis, insupportable assumptions, and a host of other sins. In fact, the report's central offense was its argument that economic growth on the current model could not continue indefinitely because the resources needed to sustain it would eventually be depleted.

In a world committed to the religion of growth, The Limits to Growth was heresy. That, not statistical or methodological failures, was its real offense. The controversy showed more about the critics than it did about the report. They were growth fundamentalists, and their reaction was more about saving the faith than about seeking the truth.

To an outsider, all this fuss seemed very peculiar. Of course there was only so much oil, iron ore, tin, aluminum, and other vital material in the world. Of course there was only so much arable land. Of course the amount of water was finite. And on and on. Why not begin to plan in the light of these realities? And why did it take so long for the experts to realize that our supplies were limited?

Now we are learning that the Club of Rome was, essentially, right. In the near future, oil supplies will not be able to keep up with demand, and our known reserves may not last out the 21st century. In the United States, we are destroying arable land that we may never replace—thus depleting an essential resource in the name of development. The rain forests of the world, which help to mitigate the effect of greenhouse gases, will be gone entirely by 2030 at the present rate of destruction. The civilization based on growth, which is the only one we in the developed world have ever known, cannot continue indefinitely, and no statistical legerdemain can make our finite world the source of infinite supplies of resources.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Present and the Future

We know that the past affects the present. We can trace the roots of the present, see how it evolved from those roots, and even learn from history—though we often misinterpret the lessons to be found there. What we cannot do is change the past. There are no second chances in history. It is done, and its results are with us whether we will them or not.

What we often do not see is that the future also affects the present. We plan for retirement. We invest in oil futures. We make decisions based on our predictions, and those decisions turn out well or badly depending on how well or badly we predicted, and how wise or foolish our response was.

This is a series of reflections about how the future might be, how it affects us now, and how we can survive. In most ways, it is hard to see a hopeful future, though we must maintain hope somehow. If we do not, the future will surely be as bleak as our worst fears.

How, then, does the future affect our present? Here are some of the ways:
  • Our future is likely to be one of limitations. In a society built on abundance, as is the United States, this is hard to envision. But in fact it is simple common sense. The planet is finite. Supplies of resources are finite. Our population and the demands it makes on resources cannot grow indefinitely. Our response to limitations—which we are already beginning to see in the case of water, and will soon see in the case of oil—will be one factor that determines whether, and how, we will survive.

  • Our destruction of the environment will begin to bite back. Most obviously, we will find our lives changed, and in peril, because of global warming unless we redesign our way of life to mitigate it and prevent it insofar as we can.

  • Our religious, ethical, and ideological systems will come more and more into question. The growing popularity of fundamentalist religion has so far masked the central problem of religion and philosophy: the shaking of their foundations by changes in the world and in our understanding of it. Yet each of us needs a moral and spiritual base. We cannot, and should not, abandon our search for it; but we must make that search in a different world from the one we have known.

We can respond to a perilous future in at least two ways:

  • By protecting ourselves and our families: Even as we look for ways that humanity can survive the future, we have a responsibility to do this. In its extreme form, however, it becomes self-centered and potentially dangerous. At the outer reaches of individual and family survival lies the survivalist mode: shotguns, cellars full of provisions, and paranoia. These reflections reject the survivalist approach.

  • By making changes that will make the future less dangerous for ourselves and for humanity. This is what I call the social design approach, for want of a better term. Social design happens whether we do it consciously or not. For example, the mass migration to the automobile-dependent suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s, though not planned, was a design decision by default. One of my goals in these reflections is to look at how our design—whether conscious or unconscious—molds the future even as our prediction of that future molds our design decisions.

Not all of these reflections will deal directly with these issues. But in the end, they will be about a future that is likely to be more challenging than any we have known—one in which past approaches will not work without rethinking.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Meditation on Hope

I begin this series of reflections with a Christmas letter from 2004.

These are dark days. As the Winter Solstice approaches, the sun appears later and disappears earlier. The news is full of wars, genocide, conflict, and environmental ruin. Things fall apart, as William Butler Yeats put it—and it is hard now to believe he was wrong.

Yet December, the darkest time of the year, is when many of us celebrate light and hope. Christians remember the birth of Jesus and the hope of peace and redemption. Jews celebrate the persistence of light against all odds. And there are traditions, going back beyond memory, that celebrate the Solstice itself, the end of growing darkness and the return, however slowly, of the light.

What these traditions have in common is hope. Not certainty, for hope is not about an assured future. Not optimism, for hope is not about cheerfulness or self-assurance. It is the condition that makes the future possible and undergirds authentic confidence. If we lose hope, we lose all. If we keep it, we can create the future, even without guarantees.

So it is well that we celebrate hope, even in dark times like these. At the Solstice, the sun will rise late and set early. The next day will be longer, even if only by a minute; and the day after that longer still. Greater light will come. And hope, wherever we find it, will still be with us.