Cities are for people, not cars

Whenever I see then-and-now photographs of urban streets I’m invariably struck by the difference in the number of pedestrians. There were far more in the days preceding the onslaught of the automobile.

Today, city transportation engineers endeavor to maximize vehicular traffic. So they design for and build wide streets with multiple lanes and signals that facilitate the flow of automobiles and trucks. Pity the poor pedestrian, who struggles to avoid merciless motorists who, understandably, treat pavement as their exclusive domain.

Vox gives us photographs of street locales both before and after the automobile took over. An excerpt from the linked article:

In the early 1900s, “pedestrians were walking in the streets anywhere they wanted, whenever they wanted, usually without looking,” Peter Norton, a historian at the University of Virginia, told me for a recent article about the creation of the crime of jaywalking.

Obviously, that didn’t last long. As cars began to spread, accidents increased, and automakers embarked on an aggressive campaign to redefine who belonged on the roads, eventually restricting pedestrians to crosswalks.

It worked so successfully that, today, few people are aware that city streets were once a bustling mix of pedestrians, streetcars, pushcart vendors, and children at play — an environment that Norton likens to a city park.

Cars are now a necessity, since sprawl separated the land into places to live (the suburbs) and places to work (usually cities). City officials mandated more parking spaces, an added expense to private and public businesses caught up in a vicious cycle: either accommodate the car or shutter your doors. The auto-dependent suburbanite rarely enters the city, preferring to shop at malls surrounded by enormous asphalt lagoons.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that rooftops generate retail. Build and they will come?

Hottest year on record

But, by all means, let’s make sure the Keystone pipeline is built, fracking continues apace, and restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions never see the light of day. In case you guessed it, the modern Republican is both willfully ignorant and hypocritical in the extreme. So members of the GOP, in whatever branch of government and at whatever level, happily deliver an increasingly uninhabitable planet while making darn certain that rich people’s offspring receive all of their financial inheritance, suitably in a much warmer future.

For a quick overview of heat, its sources, and its consequences, read the contents of this link from Vox. Here’s a quote:

Climate scientists say they are 95 percent certain that human influence has been the dominant cause of global warming since 1950. They’re about as sure of this as they are that cigarette smoke causes cancer.

I wonder if Senator James Inhofe smokes.

 

Bertha burps WPPSS

In a can-you-believe-your-eyes? article on a German project to build a roof over an expanded highway running through Hamburg, writer Joseph Stromberg digs Seattle, in several ways:

Of course, there’s also another solution to eliminating traffic noise: tearing out urban highways entirely. In the US, Seattle is burying a downtown waterfront highway at a cost of $4.2 billion (and counting), and there’s a pretty good case to be made that the city would have been better off removing the highway and replacing it with parks or pedestrian-friendly development.

From Vox

From Vox

Governor Brown

Idealistic in his first gubernatorial tenure, California Governor Jerry Brown has just begun his fourth term at the age of 76, presiding over a rapidly recovering economy while planning for a greener future.

Time flies.

Rewind the calendar to 1992. My then-15-year-old daughter delivers a seconding speech to Brown’s nomination for president. But the Democrats at Madison Square Garden had in mind the coronation of Bill Clinton, though the crowd was abuzz in anticipation of Mario Cuomo’s address. Brown slipped out the backdoor, became mayor of Oakland for a couple of terms, before returning his sights to Sacramento.

Timothy Egan sings his praises, contrasting the “knuckle-dragging” Congress with the Golden State’s march toward a robust economy, high-speed rail, and a cleaner tomorrow. He writes:

Governor Brown, having balanced a runaway California budget and delivered near-record job growth in a state Republicans had written off as ungovernable, laid out an agenda to free the world’s eighth-largest economy — his state — from being tied to old energy, old transportation and old infrastructure. He doubled down on plans to build a bullet-train network and replumb the state’s water system, while setting new goals to reduce dependence on energy that raises the global temperature.

“The challenge is to build for the future, not steal from it,” said Governor Brown, who is the embodiment of the line about how living well is the best revenge — political division.

Way to go, Jerry. Truth to power.

Mrs. A, daughter, John Kelly, son, and writer—at Jerry Brown's NYC headquarters (1992)

Mrs. A, daughter, John Kelly, son, and writer—at Jerry Brown’s NYC headquarters (1992)

I am not a scientist [u]

“I am not a scientist,” is the consistent refrain from Republican officials, a not-so-clever rejoinder to mountains of amassed data and analysis demonstrating that greenhouse gases are on the rise along with global temperatures, inching the planet closer to one catastrophe after another. Indeed, it has become the litmus test for GOP hopefuls and standard bearers: deny climate change, or else.

So, what are American voters poised to accomplish today? Increase the Republican hold on the House and return the Senate to the Grand Old Party. The rather simple calculus: too many voters are either ignorant or don’t give a damn about their offspring’s future.

Closer to home, the Snohomish County PUD faces numerous obstacles to being green, from narrow minded “environmentalists” to officious bean counters in Washington, D.C. By all means address climate change, come the faux environmentalists, but please, please don’t do this or that project, however benign and renewable. The federal bean counters don their green shades equipped with solid blinders to withhold funds from initiatives previously encouraged with enthusiasm and dollars.

Delivering episodic reports of doom and gloom, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) charts the befouling of air and water:

Screen Shot 2014-11-04 at 8.29.40 AM

Fibure 1.6 from fifth IPCC synthesis report

Yet, the panelists opine (pdf), there is still hope of averting the worst, though time is rapidly running out and mitigation costs jump higher with further delays.

Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems. Limiting climate change would require substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions which, together with adaptation, can limit climate change risks.

The favored response to this warning: “I am not a scientist.” The far more accurate and fitting utterance: “I am an idiot.”

UPDATE (Nov. 5, 2014):

This chart from the New York Times speaks volume:

Screen Shot 2014-11-05 at 10.35.44 AM

Housing the Rest of Us

The Puget Sound area entices many, given its natural amenities. But there are constraints, notably: Where will the people live? Michael Luis, writing for Crosscut, details the challenges, which are significant.

After 20 years of growth management we still don’t have a very good grip on this question. We know we do not want to sprawl forever, like the big, fast growing cities of the Sunbelt. But we have never come up with a plausible alternative.

Seattle is increasingly home to only the affluent, as housing prices outstrip median household incomes. Those further down the wage ladder must live farther out.

But there is a problem, a very big one. And that is transportation. Once removed from the city, suburbanites confront congestion horrors.

So, back to cities. How do we fit a growing population into urban centers confined by both geography and transportation? Luis suggests three immovable objects to doing so.

  1. Urban Growth Boundary, mandated by the Growth Management Act
  2. resistance to density
  3. lifestyles

Those who live in single-family homes strenuously object to multi-family units in their neighborhoods. Though inhabitants of other countries, as Luis points out, have lived in densely packed built environments for centuries, Americans, in the words of James Kunstler, desire their own “log cabins” in the cities. Luis:

The fact remains that preservation of existing low-density zoning is a primary expectation of local governments, and there is no constituency outside the housing industry pushing for higher densities. The political formula is simple: Most voters already own homes and have no stake in expanding the supply of them.

Young people may start their families in multi-family units, but then seek larger accommodations with yards and fences to raise their children. But unless they can afford to spend upwards of a million dollars or more, they’ll be forced into the cheaper suburbs, necessitating dreaded commutes along the always-congealed freeway corridors.

Luis does not seem optimistic about our collective ability to solve the problem. He concludes:

The problem of providing housing for the next wave of growth is not a planning or economic question, but a political one, and it is a question that the region’s leaders need to get a grip on. Growth management, as carried out at the local level, has had two big successes: preserving the Cascade foothills and creating vibrant urban centers. There is no technical barrier to city and county leaders doing the rest of the job, primarily finding creative ways to house families that don’t involve lengthy commutes.

But before they can do that effectively, the state, which created this political mess in the first place, needs to come back to the table. The GMA needs to be tweaked to acknowledge two important truths. First, planning for population growth and unit count is too abstract; we need a finer grain of planning that considers real people and households and their needs. Second, local governments are hardwired to respond to their current residents, not their future ones, and assuming they will take tough votes on density without strong guidance and incentives is unrealistic.

Ah, politics. Oh, and planning. We Americans are not very good at either.

Fools on foot

No U.S. city makes the list of the world’s most livable cities, which are generally found in Scandinavia, Canada, and Australia. In my humble opinion the absence has everything to do with transportation.

America was largely formed after the advent of the automobile. Cars are king. Pedestrians and bicyclists are second-class denizens, if not lower. The typical U.S. motorist treats the walkers and peddlers as annoyances, inconvenient obstacles. Fools on foot hope to merely survive steps on pavement, perhaps for the next day’s anxious adventure.

A couple of weeks ago an out-of-town visitor lost his contest with a couple of tons of metal. He was crossing an intersection in what is called “downtown Everett” (Wash.), whereupon he was struck by an SUV and killed instantly. It was a bright, sunny day just before noon.

Yesterday my wife and I nearly succumbed to the same outcome. A woman was making a left turn while talking on her cellphone (illegal in Washington state) and obviously didn’t notice the two of us as we were nearly halfway across the intersection with the walk sign. The driver saw us at the last moment, slamming on her brakes to just avoid the collision. She never missed a syllable of her conversation. As she resumed her turn, I slammed my open hand against her window, yelling, “Get off the damn phone!”

Over the years, transportation engineers and urban planners have fixed the built environment to accommodate the automobile, leaving pedestrians and bicyclists at the mercy of oblivious drivers. The motorist, so coddled, has a sense of righteous superiority in plying our nation’s streets. They drive as if in their living rooms while talking on their mobile phones as if in a coffee shop. Oh, there’s a pedestrian in the crosswalk. I suppose I should stop.

A livable city, it seems to me, would have a built environment in which cars were rare and benign. Pedestrians and bicyclists would be the rightful inhabitants and thus enabled to travel freely and safely amidst well-protected urban pathways.

Here’s a photo off the Internet of a Helsinki street. The city is judged one of the most livable.

 

helsinki_street

A car would be out of place. I say Amen to that.