A week of excellent transportation conversations

Last night I went to Plan B (SE 8th and Main) for “An Evening with Roger Geller”, an interview of Roger Geller, PBOT’s Bicycle Coordinator, by Jonathan Maus of BikePortland. The main subject was the draft 2030 Bike Plan, which is likely to be adopted by City Council in January. It was a good conversation — by turns personal, wonky, political, and funny. My two favorite quotes, which I posted on Twitter during the evening, were:

You build for the future you want.


We’re talking to the choir a bit here, but it’s still important for the choir to show up to church.

The second one perhaps needs a little more context if you weren’t there. He was speaking in response to the concern that the conversation about the Bike Plan and cycling in general is not happening enough outside the ‘bike bubble’ of interested, active cyclists. Since despite my newcomer status in Portland, I’m certainly already inside the bike bubble, I don’t really have any idea, but I liked his point here and the analogy is fun.

You build for the future you want. Let’s build it out. Let’s get 5000 (clothed) cyclists to rally at City Hall. Let’s get more funding, so it’s not bikes or streetcar; or sharrows or bike boulevards, but both/and. Bike everything, all the time. Okay, maybe not, but I’m wholly enthusiastic, and particularly happy to know that they are planning to use all available traffic tools to manage the newer bike boulevards they will be building. Portland’s bike boulevards are sometimes more notional than actual, and still get crazy traffic. Put Ellen Fletcher Bike Boulevard-style diverters on them, take away the superfluous stop signs, and you’ve really got something great.

I found it interesting also to watch Roger’s deflection of fundamentally political questions. I don’t fault him for this, as it is really up to us, as citizens, to get politics and political will and funding stuff going, but it was interesting to see. At one point he commented rather simply “no” when asked if there was tension between being a cyclist personally, and believing in cycling, and building out infrastructure with all its many challenges and compromises. I saw in that an admirable passion for doing concrete things to advance cycling, even if it’s sometimes unclear which concrete things will be the best in the long run.

Tonight was a view from a different level: Gordon Price presenting at the Portland building, as part of my PSU/PBOT Traffic and Transportation class. Our coordinator had promised us a really great presentation, really great, but I have to admit I was skeptical. We’ve sat through a lot of presentations, many of them interesting, in the eight sessions we’ve had.

But this one was really fantastic. I was incredibly impressed by Mr. Price, in both style and substance. It probably helps that he totally reminds me of my dad (who is also a balding, sixtyish Canadian professor, albeit one who has mostly lost his Canadian accent over the years).

He had a comprehensive presentation about the development and state of the auto-dependent society, and not one that totally relied on numbers and text but which effectively used images of all kinds — photographs, maps, 3D maps, charts — to tell the story of the auto-dependent landscape vs. the human-scale landscape. He took examples from all over the US and Canada (even San Mateo, CA, where I used to live).

What I was most impressed with was the way his presentation explained what the auto-dependent society gives us that we want. We want privacy, space, autonomy. Obvious, right? But it’s overlooked so often in discussions about transportation and land use; it’s seen as obvious that we in fact don’t want suburban sprawl. Or if we do, we shouldn’t because we are bad people to want something that is so clearly bad in its end-stages. But it comes out of human impulses, human desires. No, it doesn’t work, but it’s important to respect the point. Even in high-density areas, he pointed out, household sizes are tiny. People occupy a ton of space per person compared to what they used to, so in order to fit enough people in, we have to go up, up, or otherwise be clever about space usage.

Some favorite quotes:
“Motordom never really worked on its own terms.”
“…an urban region designed for the car.” (a perfect description of 95% of the Bay Area)
“They laid out a continent that way…we walk in chains.”
“Congestion is our frind. You’re going to have it. Where do you want it?”
“If they can do it in Detroit, there’s gotta be hope.”

And the most interesting for me personally:
“As a cyclist I am not a big fan of rail in the street.”

Last, a relayed Tom Robbins, that I liked because of my interest in systems:

A truly stable system expects the unexpected, is prepared to be disrupted, waits to be transformed.

Ten is cool, seven is cool

Xtracycle on Twitter today pointed me to a great blog post from Doug about his seven years as a car-free commuter (in Minnesota, no less).

I mentioned to someone recently that it’s been nearly ten years since I owned a car. (Actually, I’m not sure I ever technically owned a car, since the car I drove in high school most likely still belonged to my parents at the time that I was driving it. But I was its primary driver.) I hadn’t realized it had been that long until I thought back over it and remembered that the accident that totaled our 1987 Acura Legend happened in August of 1999, and it’s now August of 2009.

I don’t think my story is as impressive as Doug’s. For most of the time, I haven’t lived anywhere with an icy/snowy winter, and I haven’t bike-commuted to work every day. First I lived on campus at Rice for two years, then rode a mile or two on my bike each day from the Violin House* to campus, then went back to living on campus for a year. One summer I borrowed a friend’s car.**

For the summer after college, I drove the family car when I went to work or out. Then I lived in Edinburgh, Scotland, within 15 minutes walk of the Linguistics building at the university, for two years. Edinburgh has an excellent bus system which I frequently took advantage of, or I walked a lot; I didn’t ride during those years. (Cycle on the left side? No way! :)

When I came back, I drove the family car again for a few months before I moved to the Bay Area. In the Bay Area, I starting cycling again, often to work (and even in winter rains), but I usually took the train part of the way. I frequently rode along with other people in cars to get places that had proven to be annoying or impossible to get to via transit or cycling.

Now, in Portland, I walk and ride the bus a lot as well as cycling, and I (finally) have access to Zipcar. I’m not a frequent user, but it’s nice to know I can haul stuff or drive to remote destinations myself, without depending on the kindness of others. Of course, if I had an Xtracycle I could do more hauling, but I don’t see hauling four kitchen chairs even with an Xtracycle. I love Zipcar for being 90% of what Doug describes a car as:

Even though I didn’t drive much, having a vehicle sitting there, just in case I needed it, provided my mind with a feeling of security. It provided a mode of transportation that was convenient, easy, and available all the time. Peace of mind.

Zipcar claims that each of their cars takes 20 cars off the road (they ask when you sign up if you will be getting rid of your car). Pretty amazing, and a great way forward for letting go of your car without letting go of all that peace of mind.

Even though I’m much more impressed by Doug than I am by myself, I don’t think this is a contest of who’s the most impressive. I certainly don’t do it to prove anything or make milestones, and he clearly doesn’t either. We’re both happier when we’re not behind the steering wheel of a car, and for me that is and will always be the main reason I don’t drive much. I hope in ten years I’ll still be car-free and that even more people will find it a viable option for themselves, and discover their joy in a different kind of freedom from the kind a personal motor vehicle offers.

* The house in West U I lived in during my junior year of college. With a lot of violinists, hence the name.
** Partly as a favor to him so he didn’t have to drive it back to Oregon. And I locked myself out of it once — in the middle of Tropical Storm Allison.

When you say “as in”

” ‘With any luck we will be able to ftp some suitable software and get it running on the Tera.’
‘The Terror?’
‘Tera. As in Teraflops.’
‘That does me no good at all. When you say “as in” you are supposed to give me something more familiar to relate it to.’ “

I got a Portland Water Bureau Drinking Water Quality Report in my mailbox today. There’s a section where they list contaminants, including Radium, which is measured in picocuries per liter. There’s also a “Definitions” section which defines picocuries per liter, among other things. The definition is:
“Picocurie is a measurement of radioactivity. One picocurie is a trillion times smaller than one curie.”

Note to the PWB: please see the above Cryptonomicon excerpt for my reaction to this definition.

Does anyone have Staythesame.gov yet?

I haven’t generally been extremely hopeful about Obama as president as far as “Change” goes — my feelings tend more to the “intelligent, self-reflective, moderately liberal guy? okay, that sounds pretty good” sort — but I am fairly disappointed that he’s appointing a Secretary of Energy who thinks the problems are on the supply side and can be solved by technology, and a Secretary of Agriculture who thinks that…surprise…the problems can be solved by technology (bio, in this case). Technology is terrific, but we’re facing some pretty major problems, and I would like to see the new administration thinking about new, not old, ways to solve them.

It’s good that Chu is a scientist! Really! But…it’s not that good that he thinks that if only we can make more energy, it’s not important that we’re using so much.

And it’s really not good that Vilsack loves ethanol and Monsanto.

Edit: And.


tying together two themes of my life lately

I’ve been to or known of a lot of weddings of people I know this year, including two in June (both lovely, and very different). Thus I was charmed to find my interest in transit combined with this recent swell in weddings in Annie’s post about a couple traveling to their own wedding on the Tube.
Favorite line: “We didn’t feel that we needed a stretch limo to get to their register office when we have got an Oyster card and the Tube.”

What a great idea! Weddings are often resource-intensive, so I love their concept of trying to make lighter mark. Three weeks ago Barbara also wrote about doing a “local food” catering for a wedding (vegetarian, too), for another person who is committed to “green” living. The food, of course, sounded absolutely lovely, but that goes without saying since it is Barbara.

Post about my trip to Toronto coming soon, I promise.

Never thought it would happen but…

…I think I’ve fallen for California, or at least for the Bay Area.

I fell for San Francisco a bit before I moved here, loving the little houses all packed up in the hills. It reminded me a little of Edinburgh (the city I love best). I also had an affection for BART — the speed, the frequency, the sounds it makes when it accelerates.

But moving to the Peninsula isn’t really like moving to San Francisco. It’s suburbia on crack, high-density, long-range suburbia, set into a landscape that would be much more beautiful if only it weren’t crowded with overpriced, undermaintained homes. It’s a frustrating place to live — I think whether you have a car or not (because if you do, you spend a lot of time in traffic), but more so if you don’t. Not dense enough for transit to be effective, too dense for transit not to make sense. I was angry with Caltrain for being crappy. I didn’t feel at home. I couldn’t get to places. I didn’t know people.

But I got seduced by the flowers in everyone’s yards, the beautiful weather, and the ever-tantalizing closeness of both city and wilderness. You can go to San Francisco and have your fill of urbanness (I don’t need that much, it turns out). And there’s that little strip of undeveloped area off to the coast edge as you start to come south from the city, progressing to a wide swath of ranches, estates, parks and near-wilderness as you go further south. Hiking and riding in that area isn’t too far from being a little strip of heaven.

Farmer’s markets overflow with produce from farms in the nearby area and the Central Valley. There are towns and cities with a multitude of different sizes and personalities, and interesting places to go that aren’t really that far away, even though they’re a lot further away than most people want to admit. Slowly, I started to get the measure of this place. I didn’t realize how at home I’d become until a fortuitous invitation to temporarily get away came my way, and I realized I didn’t want to miss anything.

I have the uniform, but I never really thought I’d become a California girl. I guess I underestimated California.

Disposing local

The single paragraph in Garbage Land: On the Trail of Trash that most annoyed me was this one:

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, which made exhaustive studies of consumers’ environmental impacts, the things that make the biggest differenc to planetary health are transportation, housing, and meat eating. It isn’t worth it, they said, to get worked up over paper versus plastic at the grocery store.

Okay, if your choice is actually only between paper or plastic, whatever — although I have my doubts about the equivalency given the persistence of plastic in the environment. But the thing is, there’s a third, very obvious choice: reusable bags.

It’s true that most of the choices we make have a relatively small effect on our environmental impact, but even in the small choices, sometimes there’s an option that’s clearly much better than the rest. Paper or plastic? Yes, who cares — not because they’re the same, but because you should ditch both and get some reusable bags.

The more interesting thing that I started to think about as I got further through the book is the idea of local waste disposal, especially as a parallel to local eating. One of the common threads of all the waste that the author tracks is that much of it goes a long way away from where it was first deemed to be waste — very much like many things we acquire are first shipped a long way to get to us. Even as far as the other side of the world, in both cases, some of the time.

The author talks to a few people who are devoutly into reducing waste (and others interested in it for financial gain), and one of the common threads, though it’s not mentioned explicitly is that the stuff doesn’t go as far away. Instead of being trucked to a landfill or going to a sewage plant, it goes into compost toilets or to a nearby Freecycler (Freecycle is mentioned briefly, along with craigslist). If we couldn’t push our waste so far away, we’d be more likely to notice that it’s excessive and noxious. Keeping everything local makes you care where it comes from and where it goes to. Local waste may be as important to the environmental picture as local eating.

Overall it’s an interesting book, although it’s a little inconsistent on information value since in many cases the author was denied access to the places that did her waste processing.

Keep us in tofu, and also in bananas?

Value is not made of money, but a tender balance of expectation and longing.
–Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

This beautiful expression reminded me of a conversation I had with my dad a while back about spending and saving money. We both enjoy watching money accumulate, and tend not to buy things, even though we can afford them. We were talking about what luxury means, and how it can be easy to become jaded by what once seemed a luxury, unless you make a conscious effort to avoid that.

When I was a kid, my stocking always had an orange in the toe, and although I understood it was tradition, I never really knew why. I just figured that it was supposed to balance out the candy.

The quotation comes after a description of Kingsolver’s daughter Lily eating one of the tangerines they bought for the winter holidays after an eight-month hiatus on citrus, which isn’t grown in their local area and wasn’t in the high season anywhere nearby until then. Eating locally, citrus returned to being the luxury it was in the time when it became a tradition to have it in the Christmas stocking. It once would have been as treasured as the candy, maybe more so. But with the trend in shipping everything everywhere, it became an everyday thing. I don’t think I knew where oranges came from until after I was an adult, much less that they have a season.

Since I’ve been buying most of my produce at the farmer’s market, I’ve been incidentally eliminating a number of things that aren’t in season now, or aren’t grown at all near here — like bananas, also once a daily or weekly part of my diet, also once fruits that I didn’t recognize as denizens of a faraway place, possessed of their own season.

Bananas that cost a rainforest, refrigerator-trucked soymilk, and prewashed spinach shipped two thousand miles in plastic containers do not seem cruelty-free, in this context. A hundred different paths may lighten the world’s load of suffering. Giving up meat is one path, giving up bananas is another. The more we know about our food system, the more we are called into complex choices. —AVM p. 225

There’s something worthwhile about making sure that our ideas of everyday and luxury items, or everyday and luxury behaviors, don’t get too out of whack. The more we see as everyday, the less we have to get excited about on special occasions, the less excited we can get, and the more boring life seems. Or we keep seeking out greater and greater thrills, until our consumption and behavior become extreme. I’m happy to put limits on my everyday choices, both food and otherwise, if it means I gain more pleasure on the occasions that I allow myself to step outside those limits. And if it means the world will still have some resources available for all of us down the line.

This is a difficult line of reasoning, though, because where do we draw the line? Every day of my life is profligate luxury compared to some, yet very moderate compared to others. I don’t eat only beans and rice and live in a hut without running water; I don’t live in a multi-bedroom house, drive a Hummer, and wear diamonds.

What are we called on to do? This question is not academic in these early days of serious thinking about climate change and fossil fuel limits. McKibben raises the same question in Deep Economy: what are we all called on to do? We obviously have to give a great deal up, because right now our country of 5% of the world’s population is using 25% of its resources, but those in other countries want some of the benefits we’ve gotten from our cheap-fuel economy. Where in the middle do we meet? For now, I’m going to I hope it’s someplace where all of us choose some moderation, and we all also enjoy a few luxuries. And I’m going to keep looking for the place on the the scale where I feel like I’m doing the right thing by myself and the world.

Why I bother

Michael Pollan has an article in the New York Times magazine this week called “Why bother?” It’s essentially a long apology (in the old rhetorical sense) for personal action, personal virtue, in the cause of reducing our carbon emissions.

One of the last entries I wrote in my old journal before I switched over was about exactly this issue, partially a rebuttal of Thomas Friedman and partially of the assertion of a friend which was similar to the assertions Pollan mentions coming from even the august liberal media: how can my action make any difference?

Because the climate-change crisis is at its very bottom a crisis of lifestyle — of character, even. The Big Problem is nothing more or less than the sum total of countless little everyday choices, most of them made by us (consumer spending represents 70 percent of our economy), and most of the rest of them made in the name of our needs and desires and preferences.

His approach is a little different from the one I took (and more academically phrased), but they’re quite compatible. I talked about moral consistency, which is in line with his mention of character. We have to call on ourselves to make the change, he says, and then we have moral standing to ask other people, and other countries, to change. I said, “To have any moral standing, I have to be acting out my own ethical standards to at least a high percentage. If I’m preaching and not practicing, what I say rightly has very little weight.”

I discussed in greater depth what I called “demonstrated opportunity”, which is essentially what he’s describing here: if we change our choices, then there’s a knock-on effect in the economy because the economy is made up of our choices, and it shows that there’s an opportunity and a need for new kinds of services.

His article also called to mind a book I recently finished, called Deep Economy, by Bill McKibben. I have more to say about the book, but the point here is that McKibben outlines different personal and governmental choices people have made to move toward locality, community, and sustainability, and creates a vision of how our whole world could change by moving in that direction. But while he, like me and like Pollan, supports some of that change coming from ‘above’ (laws and governtment), he also emphasizes the necessity of personal and community choice, the need for responsibility to oneself and one’s community.

It may be old-fashioned to believe in personal virtue. But how far might we get if we are the people pointing the way?