The Republicans have their echo chamber which allows them to influence the media, so it is my turn to help the other side.


More On Peak Oil

There is an interesting article about peak oil from February on Aljazeera. Matthew Simmons, an advisor to Bush, warns that peak oil may have already been reached. He believes many oil fields have been damaged due to overproduction, including Ghawar, the largest oil field in the world. Shell had to write off 20% of their fields last year, possibly as a result of overproduction.

The Terrorists In Our Midst

I'm not afraid of Osama Bin Laden or Kim Jong-il. I'm afraid of the domestic terrorists that we hear about every day on TV and see in our local newspapers. I feel more threatened by the ideological extremists in our own country who wield far more power than any foreign threat. I'm writing this after reading an opinion piece in the New York Times (yeah, NYT again, sorry). A terrorist is someone who invokes fear in order to further their political goals. Hmm, I know someone that recently won an election on a platform of fear, does that make him a terrorist? Extremists in our own backyard are creating a nation of fear. Fear of abortion.Fear of terrorists. Fear of drugs. Fear of gays. Fear of evolution. Extremists are trying to take over the government, and have been alarmingly succesfull. Just recently a bill was passed through Congress to try and save Terri Schiavo. This needs to stop... now.

Vibrant Cities, Just Add Children

I've been posting a lot more about social issues and a lot less about politics than I expected, and today I will continue that trend. The New York Times recently published an article about the lack of children in many American cities. Many medium to large sized cities in this country are being remodeled and redesigned. The new homes are more vertical, and more expensive. This type of development tends to attract young, single folks, and older retirees; two groups unlikely to room children. With most families moving to cheaper suburbs, cities have been emptied of children and many are being forced to close down schools. I didn't realize how large this problem was until the article brought it to light.
San Francisco, where the median house price is now about $700,000, had the lowest percentage of people under 18 of any large city in the nation, 14.5 percent, compared with 25.7 percent nationwide, the 2000 census reported. Seattle, where there are more dogs than children, was a close second.

Cities aren't complete without a diverse range of ages. Children prevent cities from feeling sterile and lifeless. Hopefully this trend can be reversed by making the streets safer (less danger from cars) and creating affordable multi-room apartments and condos.


Rolling Stone on Peak Oil

Rolling Stone has an interesting, if not sensationalist, article about peak oil. While it tries to scare readers, it should be required reading for all Americans. One thing it points out is that even renewables can't save the American lifestyle. This is true and is something that is not often mentioned. I advocate renewable energy use, but I also realize that it is just a stopgap and we'll also need to reduce consumption. Americans can't drive 50 miles to work; there won't be enough oil and we won't be able to produce enough biomass to support it. As a culture, we need to move away from this disposable, waste-creating lifestyle.

However, I don't believe the future will be as grim as the article portrays it. First of all, stuff is becoming ever more efficient, and we will still be able to use biomass to generate a lot of energy; at least enough to grow and transport food. The eminent energy crush may, despite what the article predicts, actually generate an increase in the standard of living. We will be forced to live in smaller areas and interact on a more local basis. Food generation and manufacturing would also be done on a more local scale. While at college, I usually stay within a mile of my dorm, but I see and interact with lots of people and have many resources at my disposable. Some days I bike or bus downtown, about four miles each way. I feel much better, despite my lack of mobility, than I do in suburbia where my public interactions are limited. I could travel 30 miles around the Eastside and feel emptier than I would walking one mile downtown.

"How can I prevent the fall into serfdom that the author predicts?" you may ask. Well, I see some valid options, but many people wouldn't like them. What you want to do is wean yourself off oil and excess energy use. Move close to your work, preferably in an urban area. Use your car less and, if possible, consider selling it. You will be inconvenienced, I must admit, but it will save you large sums of money in the long run, especially if oil prices continue to climb. Get a bike and start riding. If you are able to get in shape and accustomed to riding around the city, you will be at an advantage later (plus, it lowers the inconvenience of not having a car). If you have a house, consider investing in solar power/hot water; this will isolate you in case rolling blackouts return. In fact, use your car savings to buy the solar equipment. Also, consider creating a relationship with a local former through a community supported agriculture program. Having an existing relationship with a farmer will make it easier to reserve food if/when this forecasted civil collapse occurs.

There are some things our government can do as well. As in my last post, if the government removed subsidies that support sprawl and energy waste, the populace will start making the move themselves. Once people realize how costly their lifestyle is, they will make efforts to improve. I see this as the best, albeit least likely to happen, encouragement away from sprawl and waste. Some of these steps may seem radical, but they might just save your ass if the future is a Mad Max-esque battle for energy. Of course, there is one bright side to all this: with the lack food and oil for transportation (no more SUVs), the obesity epidemic in America is sure to go away.


End All Subsidies

There was an article in the Seattle Times recently about a bill that would tax new cars to pay for the Monorail. As it stands now, only cars older than a year are taxed. Here is the thing that gets me, the Washington State Auto Dealers are against the tax because they believe it would result in less car sales. I can't believe these guys, do they realize how many subsidies benefit the auto industry? They get free roads and a military to protect their fuel. It frustrates me when money is taken from one area to pay for another. "You drive a car? We'll tax you to pay for mass transit." If they really want to even the playing field, they would remove all subsidies and people would pay for what they use. Let's see how the auto companies and auto dealers like that, when people realize how much their precious vehicles cost them. Let farmers manage their own crops. I wonder how well the rail industry would do when the airline subsidies are removed and people have to pay their fair price.

This is also a good way to protect against sprawl. When people have to pay the true cost of their suburban infrastructure, the city would become much cheaper and fewer people would live in the suburbs. Living in the suburbs is a luxury afforded to those who can pay for the extra power, gas, and water lines as well as fire and police service and road infrastructure. It is not your right to live in the suburbs. Remove the subsidies and the development companies wouldn't make as much profit in the suburbs, making brownfield developments much more attractive. Of course, the city would have to be appropriately zoned to support higher density. If, as in Seattle, 75% of the city is zoned for single family homes, then this would end up making suburban and urban housing more expensive. Removing density restrictions and subsidies would allow all these problems to work themselves out.


Transit Density Comparison

Chris Miller just posted an interesting link on the Carfree mailing list. This page on the city of Denver's website shows just how much space cars waste on the roadway. It is amazing how little density single occupant vehicles have (the site contains a picture of the people in the same spot without the cars around them). Downtown city streets may seem crowded, but that is only because the cars are so big. If people drove less, the streets would feel more open, be quieter, cleaner, and safer. If there were less cars, the streets could be made smaller and more intimate.


Where can I get one of these?

Here an article from a few years ago about the mayors of Paris and London. In an effort to reduce pollution and give the city back to its citizens, the Parisian mayor has reduced the amount of road space available to cars. "'It's only by making life hell for motorists that we will force them to give up their cars,' said his deputy mayor, Yves Contassot." London has also made strides by introducing a "congestion zone" in which you must pay to drive during certain times of the day. I've got to ask, why can't mayors in any US city make bold moves like these? I'd love to see carfree districts in the hearts of downtown US cities. I can think of a few possible reasons: people are still married to their cars and many developers avoid building in cities, instead opting to build higher profit suburban developments (subsidized by everyone else).

Here in Seattle, Mayor Nickels proposed a plan to create density in the city center, yet it neglects the rest of the city. Since Seattle is still in the process of creating viable mass transit, this will guarantee that even more people drive to the city center from the fringes. If you think the freeways and bridges in Seattle are bad now, just wait until there are 20,000 more people commuting to downtown. The nearby neighborhoods aren't being rezoned to reflect this increase in density, so people must come from areas poorly served by buses and void of mass transit.


Bringing European Charm to Toronto

John Stillich hopes to bring some of the design concepts used in Europe over to North America. Read about his idea to increase density in Toronto. By building a variety of mixed-use buildings (single family homes, condos, apartments, and businesses) and eliminating excess roads, he envisions a community consisting of 8000 people per kilometer. Now, if only someone with money would fund something like this in Seattle.


Revitalizing Downtown Mercer Island

Many people think of Mercer Island as home to rich, snobby, elite, sheltered yuppies. Well, I'm not going to argue about that. Instead I'll talk about some of the wonderful changes to the downtown area. I've been thinking about this for a while and I'm glad it is getting some publicity. These changes are the best thing that has happened to the island in a long time.

The city council, despite the pleas of stubborn citizens, increased the max building height of the downtown area to five stories from the previous limit of two. Until recently the majority of downtown had consisted of large grocery stories and strip malls. Between new regulations and the low interest rates, developers have been spurred to create new mixed-use buildings. There are currently four large projects in the works, which will bring in 900 new apartments and 246 thousand square feet of stores and offices.

Of course, many Mercer Islanders are against anything that might damage their idea of the 'suburban dream'. Jerry Gropp thinks it will destroy the ambience of the downtown area, which leads me to ask, "What ambience?" Having lived there for some 17 years, I'm not sure what he is talking about. Most buildings are one or two stories and there are parking lots everywhere. The downtown usually seems empty (except for cars) and past 21:00 it is practically deserted. There are very few restaurants, and most close fairly early.

From the article: many Islanders think it "will attract crime, increase traffic, harm the reputation of their schools and disrupt their quiet downtown". Crime is not new. In the last year or two we've had a middle schooler bring a gun to school, a little girl get kidnapped, and an immoral drug bust. Crime will come even without this development. I don't believe it will increase traffic, if anything, it will help decrease traffic. If people can live just a short walk from their destination, they don't need to drive. How would this harm the schools? That seems like nonsense. And of course the downtown is quiet... no one is ever there.

I think public opinion can be swayed, especially if this is promoted the right way. Of course, once everything is completed and the benefits are obvious, there will be no need to explain this to anyone, but for now this is my idea. Many Islanders visit Europe and love to tell people about it. Well, just think, they could have a little European-style village in their own backyard. The roads downtown are mostly two lanes and fairly narrow. The main drag is a boulevard with trees in the center lane. If most of the downtown area was converted to four or five story mixed-use buildings, it would have a very intimate feel. The buildings wouldn't dwarf you, but they would provide a nice feeling of protection and frame the roads nicely. Increasing the downtown population would also make the downtown more lively and potentially reduce crime. There would always be people around, so it wouldn't feel deserted, and having watchful eyes discourages crime. The downtown area is almost located in a little valley. Having a number of dense, human-scale buildings at the end of a valley would be a very attractive semi-urban area. Also, Seattle is a few minute drive from downtown (assuming no traffic). However, buses from Seattle and Bellevue stop just a few blocks from downtown. It would be very easy for someone to live downtown, shop and eat at all the new stores, and ride a bus to Seattle when they want to attend an event or movie; and they could do this while rarely using their car. In a decade or two, we will hopefully have light rail to Mercer Island, which will make commuting to and from the city even easier .


Oil on Ice

Recently several groups on campus hosted a showing of Oil on Ice. The movie was very informative and well made. It helps bring to light the tragedy some people are trying to create in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Short story: greased, crusty, old Republicans want to drill in the middle of land needed by caribou. The caribou migrate through this area every year and use the lush plants for nutrients, which helps the young survive. The Gwich'in people's livelihood depends on these caribou, and without them, their way of life would end. Dana Lyons has a very relevant song named "Chosen by My People." A clip can be found on his website.


Mass Transit "We Love It! We Love It!"

Lots of people kick and scream whenever public transit is planned or voted on. However, if it can actually make it past the nay-sayers, things can turn out a lot different than the opponents imagined. Denver recently learned that mass transit makes everyone happier.. You should look no farther than Denver when considering mass transit for your own city.