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.