Sprawling toward Gomorrah

Most of the American West was built after the advent of the automobile. And most of the building was unplanned. Aided and abetted by the nexus of real estate, oil, and vehicle interests, sprawl ensued, becoming the norm that blights vast stretches of once-rural landscapes.

Let’s say you’re concerned about climate change. You know that to limit its effects, carbon emissions must be contained. Ah, but what about all those vehicles now made necessary to transport people and goods between and among low-density cities and towns? Now there’s a challenge.

If legislatures make gasoline more expensive, already strapped households will be further burdened in pursuing ordinary lives. There will be political pushback from both citizens and the aforementioned nexus.

That is what happened in California, as the state’s Assembly balked at imposing more taxes on gasoline and diesel, even after the governor and the Senate had endorsed such measures.

California came close to passing really ambitious climate change legislation last week, only to step back at the last minute. The original version of the Clean Energy and Pollution Reduction Act, passed by the state Senate and backed by Gov. Jerry Brown (D), set three goals to be achieved by the year 2030: cut the state’s gasoline consumption by 50 percent, require electric utilities to generate 50 percent of their power from renewables, and make buildings 50 percent more energy efficient. Unfortunately, lawmakers had to drop the gasoline provision, the most aggressive of the trio, to get the bill through the state Assembly, even though the Assembly is heavily controlled by Democrats.

Once built, sprawl may very well be forever. Meanwhile, carbon emissions continue to increase, assuring a rise in global temperatures, perhaps to levels that destroy habitats for most species, including our own.


UPDATE Sept. 19, 2015:

Okay, there is a potential solution to the transportation-based emissions problem. Since sprawl cannot be undone, at least in the next few decades, and, therefore, we will continue to rely on the automobile to get us from one place to another, the obvious remedy is electric vehicles, a proven technology. Of course, there is still the problem of Big Oil, which has demonstrated time and again its ability to affect political outcomes. Here’s another excerpt from the linked Grist article:

A 2014 report by the ACCE Institute and Common Cause, entitled “Big Oil Floods the Capitol: How California’s Oil Companies Funnel Funds into the Legislature,” spelled out just how much:

Key members of Big Oil are some of the largest corporations in all of California, including Chevron, Exxon, Aera Energy and Occidental Petroleum. And these big corporations spend big time. Over the past 15 years, Big Oil spent a whopping $143.3 million on political candidates and campaigns. That’s nearly $10 million per year. …

Big Oil employs high profile, high powered lobbyists to ensure their interests are represented. In the past 15 years, the price tag for these lobbyists has totaled $123.6 million. In 2013-2014 alone, the top lobbyist employer, Western States Petroleum Association, spent $4.7 million.

Schauen Sie nach Deutschland

Here is an interesting, informative, and sober piece in Vox. The author, in describing Germany’s high-speed rail, suggests that we Americans could learn a thing or two about how best to transport people by train.

Riding the high-speed train between Berlin and Hamburg, Germany’s two largest cities, is a radically different experience from riding its American counterpart, Amtrak’s Acela, which connects major East Coast cities. Germany’s InterCity Express (ICE) ride is as smooth as a Mercedes on the Autobahn. The conductor comes around politely offering to bring you coffee. The bathroom doors open electronically with the push of a button for disability access. There’s no perennial stopping and starting of the train, no grumpy barking conductor, no herky-jerky rolling of the bathroom doors, none of Amtrak’s chronically late arrivals. And on German trains, the wifi actually works.

However, there is a problem, and it’s a big one, in trying to follow Germany’s lead. We Americans love sprawl, and sprawl frustrates the task of moving citizens from one burg to another.

One difference between German and American train travel is what you see out the window. On Amtrak’s Northeast corridor route, you can spend seven hours traveling from Boston to Washington, DC, without ever passing a farm. Each city’s suburbs bleed into the next. When leaving Berlin, on the other hand, in less than half an hour you’re whisked from the capital’s center to cornfields and cow pastures. This reflects not just the train’s speed but the absence of sprawl in Germany. The suburbs — a handful of detached houses with pitched roofs, many featuring solar panels — whiz by in a few minutes. Despite, or perhaps ironically because of, Europe’s greater density, you are far closer to the countryside when in a major city. There is no equivalent to the US’s unending hellscape of highways, strip malls, fast food drive-thrus, and auto body shops. Europeans’ cities were more built up before the car, and they didn’t then tear their cities apart to accommodate cars and facilitate sprawl, as we did. The US is so vast that we could pave everything within 200 miles of New York City and still have more than enough land for our corn and cows. But if Europeans wanted to preserve rural areas, they would have to use urban space more efficiently, and so they have. A much greater share of the typical European metro area’s population is concentrated in its inner city. So you get dense, transit-rich cities with countryside in between.

Sprawl, as we know, condemns us to the automobile, upon which we rely for the most ordinary daily activities. We drive from our suburban houses to fetch a loaf of bread, deliver children to playgrounds, and transport us to jobs scattered near and far. Those cars compete for limited space on our nation’s streets, roads, and highways, creating diurnal goos, which we curse and bemoan. Yet, we have no choice but to endure and suffer.

Oh, and what about all those carbons spewing forth from millions of tailpipes? We seem to be stuck with those, ultimately to our self-ruination.

Turning all this around would require a collective response, necessarily involving government. The Germans evidently understand the political dynamics, eschewing Americans’ feral faith in the individual and the heretofore unrealized magic of “the invisible hand.”

A view from without

I didn’t see this coming, as a decade-long inhabitant of Old Mill Town:

To the north is the much underappreciated Everett. Barely mentioned in the family of Puget Sound cities, it’s a virtual secret hiding in plain sight. The neighborhoods around downtown have a pleasant patina, acquired from decades of being a working class city. Its downtown is filled with lots of interesting spots – some new some old. It’s kind of like turning the clock back to the more peaceful, small town days when Seattle was a remote, backwater town. Want a less costly place to live? To paraphrase the Village People, “Go North, to begin anew!”

— Mark Hinshaw, Crosscut

Are we in danger of having to form a Lesser Everett movement? Well, not quite, I’d say. But perhaps I should be more appreciative of where I live.

Public investing

The American Society of Civil Engineers issues a periodic report on the nation’s infrastructure, assigning letter grades to each sector. In its most recent report (2013), the society gives an overall score of D+. The authors estimate that it would take about $3.6 trillion by 2020 to meet the country’s infrastructure needs.

This sounds like a lot of money, and it is. But the figure helps quantify just how much we’ve neglected our schools and roads, to name just two components. We have a $17 trillion economy. As always, how we choose to spend those dollars has everything to do with political focus and will.

According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S.’s total tax revenues represent about 25.4 percent of GDP. The OECD average is 33.7, with the highest, about 49 percent, being Denmark. At our current rate, cities, counties, states, and federal governments collect roughly $4.4 trillion per year. If the U.S. were to collect the OECD average, the country would realize $5.9 trillion/year. At Denmark’s rate, all governments here would collect about $8.5 trillion per annum.

So, we need only tax at the OECD average, or 33.7 percent, to add another $1.5 trillion a year. By 2020, we would have collected at least $7.5 trillion, or about twice the level recommended by the engineers.

I know. Not going to happen.

We had the future, then came the car

Writing for Crosscut, Leonard Garfield:

By 1890, Seattle’s streetcar system was electrified, linking and creating neighborhoods throughout the city.

Among the first successful routes: the Seattle Electric Railway line from industrial South Lake Union to downtown, built under the guidance of 28-year-old Luther Griffith and completed in just five days. In the following decade, streetcar lines to Ballard, Greenwood, Rainier Valley, West Seattle and other “streetcar suburbs” criss-crossed the city.

By the early 20th century, the streetcar system had scaled, consolidated first by the precursor to Puget Sound Energy and then acquired by the City of Seattle in 1918. By 1936, the city’s Municipal Street Railway system operated 26 electric routes, powered by the nation’s first municipally-owned hydroelectric system.

The parallel growth of a network of street railways – connecting Seattle to Tacoma, Renton, Everett and other population centers – put a seamless transit system within easy and affordable reach of nearly every Puget Sound resident.

At the same time, Seattle built two major rail hubs: King Street Station in 1906 and Union Station in 1911. They served thousands of passengers and handled enough freight to catapult Seattle to the largest economy in the Northwest.

But it wasn’t just about rail. Other civic innovations targeted different ways to increase mobility and economic growth through transportation.

The dramatic leveling of the city’s hills allowed the city to easily expand the transit system – while city engineers lay a complementary network of boulevards and bike paths (built with the upcoming century of growth in mind). And on the water front, civic engineers began building the Lake Washington shipping canal in 1911, which aimed to connect the region’s growing industrial economy with Pacific trade.

In each instance, Seattle leaders bet on the efficacy of engineering and the value of transportation innovations.

An electrified transit system facilitating rich and poor alike. What happened?

The rise of the automobile, federal investment in a national interstate highway system, and the growth of suburbia combined to render Seattle’s pre-War transit system less cost-effective and, for many politicians of the time, less attractive.

The emphasis on highways made short term economic sense: the extraordinary financial burden of maintaining the existing interurban rail system had vexed both the city and private operators almost from the beginning. By the early 1940s, the last streetcars had been pulled from service, scrapped and often replaced by trackless trolleys and buses.

The damn car!

I recently saw Elon Musk introduce battery storage (Powerwall and Powerpack) to an enthusiastic audience. He mentioned, somewhat in passing, that 100 million cars and trucks are produced each year across the globe, which is now home to two billion automobiles.

Since the mid-1930s, Seattle destroyed its urban, rail-based transit system in favor of individual cars and paved roads, inducing populations to scatter far and away from downtown. The result for us now is an antiquated, polluting, clogging car culture that drives a fossil-fuel-based economy, without which there would be no Mariners telecasts.

In response, Seattle is desperately seeking a solution it already had 75 years ago. And you think humans are smart.

The Supreme Court giveth…then taketh

Lest we run amok with zeal over the Supreme Court’s rulings on the Affordable Care Act and gay marriage, huge victories to be sure, the Supremes reminded us that a conservative majority has no problem with a filthy, dangerous atmosphere or with states killing criminals.

In separate 5-4 decisions, the Court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency exceeded its authority by imposing limits on fossil-fuel plants’ greenhouse gas mercury emissions and that states can use chemicals to execute criminals, even though such drugs have been linked to horrifyingly botched end-of-life events.

On plant emissions, the Clean Air Act authorized the EPA to impose restrictions, provided they were “appropriate and necessary.” One would think that the scientific consensus is sufficient to satisfy the criteria: greenhouse gas concentrations continue to rise exponentially, leading to accelerated planetary warming and extreme weather events mercury poses risks to the environment. Siding with the purveyors of filth, the Court majority, led by Antonin Scalia, dismissed the science in favor of process. Here is the New York Times:

…The challengers said the agency had run afoul of that law by deciding to regulate the emissions without first undertaking a cost-benefit analysis.

The agency responded that it was not required to take costs into account when it made the initial determination to regulate. But the agency added that it did so later in setting emissions standards and that, in any event, the benefits far outweighed the costs.

The two sides had very different understandings of the costs and benefits involved. Industry groups said the government had imposed annual costs of $9.6 billion to achieve about $6 million in benefits. The agency said the costs yielded tens of billions of dollars in benefits.

Regarding executions, the Times wrote:

Lawyers for the Oklahoma inmates, with the support of experts in pharmacology and anesthetics, said midazolam, even if properly administered, was unreliable. They pointed to three executions last year that seemed to go awry.

In April 2014, Clayton D. Lockett regained consciousness during the execution procedure, writhing and moaning after the intravenous line was improperly placed. In Ohio in January 2014 and in Arizona in July, prisoners appeared to gasp and choke for extended periods.

Justice Alito wrote that the inmates had failed to identify an available and preferable method of execution or made the case that the challenged drug entailed a substantial risk of severe pain.

It did not occur to the majority in each instance to consider the larger picture—that global warming mercury pollution is bad and must be arrested and that killing people to prove that killing people is wrong. Such considerations have nothing to do with the law, sayeth the Supremes.

UPDATE (June 29, 2015):

Dave Roberts, writing for VOX, judges the EPA opinion “pointless.” Read his piece to discover why.

The pope has spoken. So…

Pope Francis promulgated an encyclical on climate change and its impacts on the poor, especially. The document, delivered to the world’s Catholics, is both conservative and radical in its concept and temperament. Conservative, in that Francis invokes the Bible and past theologians to found his critique of capitalism’s excesses on long-standing moral precepts. Radical, in that Francis develops root causes of climate change and how it is and will continue to wreak havoc on at-risk populations across the planet.

Alas, popes speak and nothing happens. From Pacem in Terris and Laborem Excercens to Populorum Progressio and, now, Laudato Si, the Bishop of Rome condemns and implores. Yet, the matters of concern worsen. And if capitalism’s excesses are  the common cause, the critiqued economic system continues to accrete, depositing “filth” as it enriches a few at the expense of the many.

I fell away from the Church decades ago; my “soul” was never in it. The Church, after all, is for believers, those who hold that God exists, created the world, and somehow inheres in that creation, perhaps guiding and cajoling the faithful in their daily lives. Yet, I appreciated then and now the Church of my youth as an innately moral institution with something to say that is profound and provocative. It sits both within and without society, calling upon ancient verities to expose human shortcomings and, it always hopes, provide a pathway to redemption, in this world and, it believes, the next.

Of course, the usual suspects, the captains of industry and reactionary minds, quickly dismissed the pope and his encyclical. Such reaction is altogether predictable and historical. In the U.S., an entire political party rejects the very premise of Laudato Si, that humans are causing the planet to warm with untold consequences for earth’s most vulnerable.

Ironic, indeed, that a majority of Supreme Court justices and a significant plurality of Republican presidential candidates call themselves Catholic. They feel emboldened to follow their “conscience” in ignoring anything the popes write in opposition to their controlling political ideologies.

These same conservatives applaud the Church’s actions against the doctrinally permissive religious on issues of sex. Suppose the Vatican were to see fit to excommunicate Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas for his egregious policies against the poor in Kansas? Same with Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, or any of the Catholic Supremes who give license to corporations’ wealth extraction and sanction capital punishment, a punishment falling disproportionately on the nation’s poor?

If the Church wished to send a message, that would be a start.