Wednesday, September 29, 2010

McGinn's Pander

It was somehow fitting that Mike McGinn wouldn't see much value in a historical museum. After all, if people studied history, would he be mayor?

Less fitting was his assertion, last week, that money should be spent on the poor first, and his decision this week to spend $13 million on bicycling, walking, and a Transit Study. I mean, really, can you imagine anything that requires less government assistance than your decision to take a walk or ride your bicycle?

The Seattle bicycling community should proudly refuse this 'help' and set about increasing ridership by a variety of private and club ventures- but they won't. The offer of money and jobs will attract some, who will then accuse any dissidents of "hating bicycles", etc etc etc in the style we've come to know so well of McGinn supporters.

What kind of private programs could increase ridership? "Each one teach one" training about bicycle repair and maintenance, training rides so the young can become accustomed to riding 5-10 miles as a normal ride, group rides with extra monitors to help deal with traffic, a buddy-system registry for riders who want one, or just a few, partners for riding, programs to give your old but still good bicycle to people who can't afford them, help for employees who want to negotiate bicycle parking and locker facilities with their employers, 'adopting' parks and keeping them clean, as destinations for popular city rides.

These are just a few ideas to increase ridership, and increasing ridership is the best way to change things. Ok, maybe the second best way to change things, but we already put the police on bicycles, so we can't play that card again.

Where increased ridership and vocal pedestrians have already forced the city to plan, as, for example, with sidewalks, spend the money and build it. But don't take something we can do, like bicycling, and turn it into something we can't do without spending a lot of money on studies. We've done enough of that already.

The Automobile- The Real Ponzi Scheme

We all know what a Ponzi scheme is, because rightwingers use that phrase to describe Social Security, which is fully funded by our taxes for the next 35 years, as a swindle.

Well, move over, SS, we have your real Ponzi scheme right here- the automobile. For a century we've been promised prosperity, and, true to form, early investors have been paid handsomely from those who come later- until now, when the average American is left holding the bag.

The automobile was going to build mighty cities, but instead served to empty them and leave them gutted. It was then going to build mighty suburbs, but we have learned that suburbs, by definition, cannot be mighty, and in fact often cannot even afford basic services over large areas.

The auto companies were going to provide good jobs with healthcare and retirement benefits to a vast workforce, who would in turn support a large domestic economy, but chose instead to move abroad and now are on the verge of defaulting on their pension obligations, and Detroit lies in ruins.

The car buyers were promised better mobility, to get to better jobs, and to enjoy their time off more. Instead, America became a land where most people work more than 40 hours a week, and households have two workers instead of one to maintain their former standard of living- and many suburban families find themselves driving constantly for activities we walked to in my youth.

The federal and state governments said the roads would be paid for by taxes on fuel, and now we have a $2 trillion backlog of necessary repairs to our overbuilt road system.

And now it's over. Americans, the 5% of the world's population that use 20% of the world's resources, are having a hard time understanding the "sustainability" thing. Not to worry- practical examples will be provided. We'll figure it out- eventually.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Our Week In McGinn

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn furnished a shining example of his demagogic dexterity when he refused to sign, at the last hour, a supplemental draft environmental statement that had been available for study for months.

Had the City Council known of his intent, they would have passed an ordnance directing him to sign- hence, the need for trickery on the part of McGinn. Had McGinn been successful, the city would have lost 'co-lead' status in the replacement of Highway 99, and also lost other coordination in the process that is intended to reduce the delay, and thus the cost, of the project. If McGinn had managed to lose Seattle's 'co-lead status', he then would have complained loudly and bitterly about how Seattle was being 'excluded' from the project

The clever part is that the successful deception of the City Council gave McGinn a win-win situation. If the Council was unable to save the agreement, the costs and delays of the tunnel would increase- all grist for McGinn's unceasing mill of complaints about the costs and delays of the project, and how Seattle is being ignored by the process. When the Council moved to save the agreement, the barking dogs howled, and the myth of McGinn courageously refusing a last-minute ultimatum was born- with the Council castigated as a cabal usurping power.

The howling, to McGinn, is as important, or more so, than any one move in his program of delay. Two weeks ago, it was the turn of the Seattle Museum of History and Industry to be the elitest cabal (according to McGinniacs) intent on starving the babies of poor immigrant women.

But what does McGinn know about budgeting for a major city? Every governing body in the US is facing a disastrous budget shortfall because of the recession. Sales are off, tax revenues are down, and this on such a massive pandemic scale that nobody could fail to see it. Except McGinn, who offers this viewpoint- "We give away millions of taxpayer dollars to an organization and then they loan it back to us and we call it a good deal. It's no wonder our budget situation is so bad," McGinn said.

It's not true, but McGinn saw another chance to crank up the decibel level and took it. It's what he does. It's what a demagogue does. The game plan is to render our representative government helpless, by a series of tricks such as we have seen from McGinn, and substitute government by a series of plebiscites proposed by- naturally- the demagogue. I doubt McGinn will have much of a run as demagogue, but we'll see more like him as public fear and confusion rises along with global warming. Those nasty things the rightwing said about environmentalists weren't true- until McGinn came along.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Homeless

It would be better for all of us if the homeless had someplace to live. If we had the moral upbringing and the political will to solve this, here would be two beginnings:

First, travel trailers parked temporarily. There's almost an infinite supply of these, they are moderately fire resistant, and would be a real upgrade from tents. They should be provided with the clear understanding that the encampment is temporary, that they will be moved, and that residents who want to stay in them will be moved with them when the time comes.

Secondly, travel trailers parked permanently, very close together (6-8 on an average city lot), plumbed and wired, as a sub-300 square foot style of living. A good way to do this would be to buy several hundred Airstream 28-footers, but without any of the gear necessary for actually traveling or living on the road. As this is single story, and thus low-density, some planning would be required to choose the locations, but a great deal of flexibility would be had by not treating them as single-family homes. For some low-income people, and some homeless people, this would be all they ever want in the way of housing.

It would, in any case, be a lot more than they are getting now.

Not Complex

The Republican plan is simple, breath-takingly so- they want to steal the Social Security Trust Fund.

Their plan is to hand out $4 trillion in tax cuts over the next decade, using the money from SS to keep the government subsidies they rely on flowing- and when those funds are gone, to declare bankruptcy. They also intend to sit at the head of the table when the ensuing reorganization plan rewards some of the creditors and requires further payments by some of the debtors, so they can make sure that the lucky creditors who get paid are themselves, and the unlucky debtors who must continue paying are the not-rich taxpayers.

This is our money, which Boomers paid so our large cohort would not burden the next generation (we've funded SS through 2043), but Republicans see no reason they shouldn't take it, considering that destroying our democracy is a goal they have shouted from the rooftops- so why not just take the money and bankrupt us?

It's a business model Republicans have used for years- acquire a healthy corporation, extract every liquid and semi-liquid asset, and dump the carcass, leaving the less alert shareholders holding the bag. Now they think they're poised to commit the largest theft in all of human history. And it's not as though, on a smaller scale, this kind of thing hasn't worked before.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Look! Over there! Shiny!

Behind the glitter of a new park on the central waterfront is a nasty reality- the park is intended to contain green intentions as much as it is to showcase them. The people who want to make the waterfront great have been awarded their 9 acres, to do with as they will.

The rest of the area belongs to the Seattle Department of Transportation, or the Washington State Department of Transportation, or the railroad, or private owners of the current parking lots. Most of these people have their own plans involving more cars on the waterfront, most of it traffic that has no reason to be on the waterfront at all.

The best, and really, the only, way to change the waterfront is to use a streetcar as a spine and hang everything on that. There should be no through-traffic and no parking. Tour buses should debark passengers directly to the trolley with passes provided by the tour bus company.

There is no better place in Seattle for a transformative streetcar than here. The shoreline from the cruise ship terminal to Washington Street is essentially linear, just like a trolley line. There are 2.5 miles of real estate a short walk from such a line, totally awaiting redevelopment as residential, professional and light commercial, or restaurant, a lovely destination for an evening in the town, garnished by a string of parks in which to linger and enjoy the evening while coming or going.

Land is too scarce for parking, and here is where the Jane Jacobeans should focus their ire- on taking the city streets there, and using them for low-rise residential and commercial instead of street. This would be one of the toniest neighborhoods in Seattle, and new residents should reasonably pay a “tax” of not being allowed to park automobiles there.

It’s not impossible. The feds would love it, and it’s just the right size for the packets of money they want to hand out. All the state wants is the tunnel. The city could spend a lot less on surface streets there, and by “a lot less” I mean maybe $50 million that would not be needed to build a new ‘urban arterial’ there. A considerable amount of surface land would then actually be available for the person-sized development the Jacobseans gush over. It could be done, and would be a success.

Sadly, almost nobody in Seattle is seizing this teachable moment to push for a streetcar and a rebuild that reduces substantially the number of automobiles in the neighborhood. The so-called ‘environmentalists’, who want to save the world by stopping the tunnel, are even less help- a new highway on the surface is part of the ’surface options’ they champion. Seattleites in general like streetcars, like the Waterfront streetcar, and would like to see more streetcars, but that’s in general, not strong opinions arrived at by study which they are willing to fight for.

It’s a darn shame there aren’t more transit advocates in Seattle who could help the average people in understanding how to demand more streetcars.

(Crossposted from the Waterfront Streetcar Blog)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Brief Word on Recovery

If noise is sound that bothers us, it might equally be said that an addiction is a repetitive behavior that bothers us. If a man goes to the same job every day for 40 years, few will describe it as an addiction, but if that same man smokes a cigarette- just one- the tears, warnings, and recriminations will come.

But here we come to a real fork in the road. Some would say that a former addict, now fully employed and re-integrated into society, is still an addict if they're using medication regularly. Others use a functional yardstick- society may require members to meet certain standards of dress and deportment, but, once met, can ask no more.

The functional approach demands opening the Pandora's box of employment, housing, decent schooling, medical care, and general social measures that ease the life path of those who can afford them and torment those who can't. It is, in fact, a slippery slope- once you realize that an alcoholic may be drinking to ease pain they can't get medical care for, you may see that the chronic pain is related to unemployability resulting from economic changes, and the inability to get re-educated.

So, what do you want? A prosperous community with lots of recovered 'addicts' fully employed, or prisons that are really full of people who can't 'kick the habit'? The choice is ours.

Of 'Visions'- Good and Bad

As predicted, John Jensen and Martin Duke have flipped open their Jane Jacobs breviaries to inveigh against the dangers of too much park, and to offer instead their vision of...well, what their vision is is not too clear. But I'm guessing Jane Jacobs was for it!

But the shadowy outlines of their vision could make you shudder. Duke, for example, doesn't "see any problem with hotels and condos. Having people live on the waterfront is better than alternative places for them to live, and guarantees that people are there year-round. Hotels, of course, generate jobs and tax revenue. And of course, the City profits from the sale of land in the first place."

Well, Helloooo Donald Trump! Memo to Martin- the only people who could afford to live in waterfront hotels and condos would be millionaires who certainly wouldn't live there year-round. In fact, Martin has sketched there the scenario that people who love and respect Seattle have tried to avoid- the selling of the city's best land to developers for a short-term financial gain, to be followed by the eternal regret of having created another Chinese Wall of condos.

Jensen, in turn, continues to wonder "how an unactivated section of town is going to be activated by just a park." Yes, somehow it has escaped his notice that a) this "section of town" is actually surrounded by the largest and most prosperous downtown in the state of Washington, and b) the problem has not been promoting development, but delaying it until we could be sure the public interest was protected.

The problem they're having is that they're living in the past and treating the waterfront like a depressed area that needs urban renewal to become prosperous. And that is about the exact opposite of the actual problem Seattle is trying to solve. The waterfront is inherently so prosperous that the city could never afford to buy land there for a park, and without a park, ordinary people could never afford to visit a waterfront full of million-dollar condos, high-priced restaurants, and, uh, more condos and restaurants.

And Seattle wants more than that. We want a jewel of a park that fits the setting- and a setting fit for the jewel. Seattle has always put on airs about having higher values and more 'vision' than other cities in Puget Sound, and it's paid off big-time with the U of W being the second largest employer in the state, and the mainspring of the civic economy.

We can afford to build it right- and if we do, they will come.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Howling

The proposals were made and james corner field operations chosen to develop plans for a new park on the central waterfront of Seattle. In the fullness of time, and about four years of public participation, plans well be developed- and what plans these will be!

The central waterfront is, quite literally, the central waterfront. It's visible as such if you look down from a plane, arrive by ship, gaze from a skyscraper or hill, or look westwards from a downtown sidewalk. It is our early history of Puget Sound commerce in steamers, and our later history of purse seiners unloading and freighters loading at the wharves. It is our future history to the extent that it dignifies the future while reconnecting Seattleites to the watery world of the Sound, our pleasure in actively using our parks, and our window on the Olympics- in a place many downtown workers can reach in a short walk at lunchtime. To some extent, in some way or another, most Seattleites will want this park to be a success.

And at every step of the process howls will be heard from Seattle's radical urbanologists. The self-proclaimed high priests of Jane Jacobism will tell us what Jane Jacobs said about parks (or, at least, the parts they agree with) and will decry the inclusion of any greenery where it would be possible to build low-rise (but not low-income) housing and shops. This, they say, will be so darn much fun that people will realize what a mistake they made in moving to the suburbs and come flooding back into the city, thus ending sprawl and reducing our dependence on the automobile.

They're a little vague on how all this fun will fit into 9 acres. It's as though you went to the dentist to get a tooth replaced and he offered to give you the incisors of a lion and the molars of a hippo- as much fun as that might be, you couldn't help but wonder how it would all ft in your mouth.

Let's be plain here- for a variety of reasons, Seattle will be a more attractive city once this whole mess on the waterfront gets properly sorted. Weak people that we are, we delight in cleanliness and order, like to visit the Aquarium once in a while with our children, and want to get out of the office and eat lunch amid greenery on sunny days. A 'new' central waterfront would be exactly the kind of place the suburbs can never match, and might actually make people think about moving back into town.

Listening to 'the howling' is just part of the price we pay for getting it right.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Rebuilding the World- One Bus at a Time

At first the task seems insuperable- rebuild the entire world in only 30 years to meet the challenges of global warming. Then you remember that most of this stuff will wear out and need to be replaced in 30 years anyway. Even the much-maligned "decay of our infrastructure" is in fact a wonderful asset- a long list of assets which are fully depreciated and paid for and can be abandoned with no financial penalty, or even some considerable gain.

Mid-20th century Americans did not build to last, because in their experience changing technology would render obsolete what they built. The enormous investments of railroads, in the early 1920s, in city stations and the coaling and other infrastructure that serviced the steam engines, were the last attempts to build infrastructure that would outlast the men and machines which built them. Less than 15 years later the automobile and diesel engine rendered all this investment by the railroads obsolete.

The problem, rendered in the "change on the fly " perspective, becomes two-fold. It's important to spend money on what we will need, and important not to spend money on what we won't need. We can see clearly that we will need stuff that runs on electricity, and we won't need stuff that runs on gas or oil.

If this were a dictatorship, things would be simple, and, quite probably, judging from other dictatorships, wrong. In our system, hundreds of thousands of decisions need to be made about where to spend. Fortunately, we have hundreds of thousands of governing bodies to consider these matters, breaking them into manageable sizes and then dealing with them, often by giving up something we want in order to get something we want more, and, often equally important, allowing funding for something we don't want in order to prevent something else we don't want even more.

This is where the tunnel-haters of Seattle get it so dreadfully wrong. Their policy is to take the approximately $1.5 billion the state would spend on the tunnel and spend it instead on suburban roads and highways, strengthening sprawl, while increasing the noise and pollution of the city by putting the traffic from 99 on the surface streets. Because they don't believe their own talking points, they don't believe that the tunnel will be a valuable rail ROW in the future. The same myopia informs their calls for bicycle paths- they simply can't envision a world in which significant amounts of the roadways are repurposed for other public uses.

That same amount of fury, expended in the cause of saving and extending Seattle's electric trolley buses, would be of real service to the future, spending money on infrastructure we'll need and taking money from "infrastructure repairs" we won't need that may actually harm us (South Park Bridge, I'm looking at you). The real lesson here, however, is probably that it won't pay to jump on a bandwagon that everybody says is going in the right direction.

Changing the world in 30 years won't be so hard if we do it one bus at a time. The devil is in the details.

Monday, September 20, 2010

He's Not THAT Rich

The web has been rocking lately with laughter about the "Not-really-rich" guy and his >$400,000 family income. But he's sincere- just read this article and find within it how they economize in every aspect of their lives- for example, sure, they have cable- but not those pricey movie channels!

Either that, or he doesn't want the nanny lying around watching Showtime when she should be scrubbing the toilet. Always hard to tell, with the rich.

Rebuilding Rail- Not That Expensive

I can't verify the figures given below, but for a very rough cost estimate of major rebuilding of our rail systems,,,,

Interstate II ( involves double- or triple-tracking 20,000 to 30,000 miles of mainline freight railroads, establishing corridors for high-speed trains and eventually electrifying the trains to replace diesel engines. Carmichael estimates this could all be done in 20 years for two cents on the motor fuel tax.

From a rather larger article at Common Dreams.

Historical Streetcars for Lake Union?

(Cross-posted from Seattle's Waterfront Streetcar Blog)

Within every trolley fan lies the darkest question- would you give up the old trolley for the new streetcar? With the high-level boarding and limited technologies of the old cars, this is not an idle question for the Seattle waterfront.

The waterfront, as intimated in previous posts, could be an ideal streetcar line- for modern cars. A bustling service should be anticipated a few years after a line is up and running from the cruise ship terminal to Pioneer Square. What will be wanted is the ability to handle large crowds at times, smart and regular service at all times, and whatever ability to economize that can be found in some standardization with other streetcars in Seattle’s ’system’.

To be honest, I have my thumb on the scales, because I can think of a better place for Seattle’s vintage cars- running up Westlake from The Center for Wood Boats to the south end of the Fremont Bridge, and perhaps from there out to the SPU fieldhouse. All of this line is level, was quite recently working rail, and is now used as parking or a path. It s quite possibly the most shovel-ready piece of rail right-of-way in the US.

And there’s that heritage thing, with the line running from MOHAI and the Center for Wood Boats to just short of the Fremont district, where one may, with a short walk, find the old carbarns now serving to brew and dispense fine ale. This, I submit, is where we want to showcase our centerpiece cars, and knit the raveled skeins of time with restoration skills and memories. Did I mention the beer?

Who knows, maybe at such a juncture somebody would build a new replica of one of the seaplanes Bill Boeing built and flew off of Lake Union, possibly duplicating he Museum’s prized mail plane, just as the CWB has been responsible for so many new boats built in the old style. It’s part of how we remember who we are and what we can do.

Think ahead a little and I’m sure you’ll see the virtues of modern streetcars serving happy crowds on the Seattle waterfront, and old streetcars serving smaller but even happier crowds on Lake Union. It’s all a question of scale.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Get Kittens

If you have a choice, don't get a cat, get some kittens. Any number from 2 to 4 is a good choice.

Sometimes you want a mature cat, or just one cat or kitten, especially if you already have cats in the plural.

But over the lifespan, a litter of kittens is best. There's a special bond between cat siblings which, among other things, leads to a lot of perfectly adorable nuzzling and cooing amongst them. They're prettier as a matched set, a role they will happily perform in an infinite number of variations around the house for their entire lives. And believe me, you haven't really lived if you've never had four purring cats in your lap.

Maybe the most interesting thing, though, is being able to see the differences in their personalities so much more clearly with the side-by-side comparison of their siblings. In groups larger than three, cats don't rotate around their owners as strongly as one or two cats will, and tend more to their cat business, whatever that may be.

Get kittens. You'll thank me later.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


Johann Hari summarizes the Haitian situation wonderfully, although, sadly, the result is not wonderful. Here we see, full-on, the dedication of the Clinton Democrats to preventing democracy and building the policed dictatorship. This is all part and parcel of the dictatorship in Honduras, the death-squad government of Colombia, and the gang warfare of northern Mexico.

The linkage lies in the swirling whirlpools of money, drugs, guns, cheap labor, and even cheaper employers, prostitution, gambling, loansharking, civic corruption, and police becoming gangsters, that would be all too familiar to us, if we had studied our own history. Rory Carroll, in a recent article in the Guardian, has reported more details in describing the decline of civic virtue in the city of Torreon.

Integral to this smashing of civic virtue is prohibition. This basic policy unlocks the cash cow for police and gangsters alike. I'm not going into details here, but simply observe that for the Clintonian Democrats, drug prohibition and the denial of democracy are the bedrock of their faith- and to hell with what the people say.

That took, like, 20 seconds....

A few months in Washington DC and former Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske is singing like a canary, cheerfully reprising the old myth about marijuana being a "gateway drug", as though that hadn't been repudiated so often, including a specific repudiation by a national commission.

As reported by Americans for Safe Access, Kerlikowske also denied marijuana was medicine. Way to go, Gil! Knuckle under completely so we can be sure we should never trust you again!

This is the wing of the Democratic Party that can shove its head in the toilet and flush repeatedly as far as I'm concerned. Just keep it up, guys, if you want a re-run of the Gore-Lieberman 2000 trainwreck.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Another 'Third Republic' Moment

The Bush tax cuts, which awarded the richest 5% of Americans with $4 trillion over their lifespan, are due to expire. Democrats want to renew the tax cuts for everyone making less than $250k a year. More than 60% of us agree that the tax cuts should not be extended for those making over $250k per year. This is both a necessary and popular move to repair the budget. Republicans unanimously demand further rewards for the very rich.

But, as in the end stages of the Third Republic, some Democrats want the Republicans to win. I wouldn't give any more than even odds that the Democrats can do the necessary and popular thing. If they don't, the government will get weaker and the party will get weaker.

Fortunately, we have no aggressor nation on the horizon, poised to strike and invade. Unfortunately, the much larger menaces of peak oil and global warming are looming over the horizon, demanding basic changes in the grandest scale of our society- changes that this government, poorly handled, may not survive.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Why "Bus Rapid Transit" Is Wrong

Bus Rapid Transit starts with a simple idea- why not run buses instead of railcars, and save all that money for rails and signalling? Even better, buses have 'flexibility' that allows them to use city streets and go new places. Best of all, you get to sell the idea of 'rapid transit' but all you have to deliver is buses.

And this will actually work, as long as transit uses decreases and failure is the end goal. But if transit use rises, you're caught short, and have no way to respond to the conditions causing the increase in ridership.

And the BRT mistake can be compounded, as Sound Transit is doing in King County, by building special roads and parking garages for the BRT. Again, in theory, this stuff will be built so it could be used for LRT in the future. In actuality, the east extension of Sound Transit Link service will be a case of building the LRT to fit the BRT infrastructure, not vice versa.

Why is this stuff important? Because of global warming. Well within the lifespans of stuff built today, it will be necessary to build transit to take 40-60% of the market share, not the 5-6% seen today. No transit system in the nation will be able to meet this need with buses, and referring to Curitabo will simply reveal that they eventually built the rail system they needed all along.

The Sound Transit rail route to Bellevue is bent to reach every bus park 'n ride and gather the ridership. Somebody forgot to tell the management that it's not just buses that are 'flexible'- riders can be flexible too. They'll travel further to catch a train then they will to take a bus.

The REAL Next Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor, as previously noted, was not a big surprise to Americans who were keeping up with current events. It was a bg surprise to Americans who didn't, or who believed the Japanese could not build good warships and airplanes, or who believed Pearl Harbor was too shallow for torpedoes launched from airplanes.

What if the next world struggle was non-violent in nature? Would we even know when "war" had begun? Because it appears that the Chinese have already been successful in early campaigns to dethrone the US as ruler of the world.

What was their secret weapon? Not having an army- or, more precisely, having an army dedicated to the welfare of China, instead of a China dedicated to the welfare of the army. With a military budget running for decades at under $10 billion, it's easy to see how they could save money faster than us, with our current military budget of $653 billion.

And it's working well for them. They can confidently invest large sums in small countries, secure in the knowledge that the vast market that is China will not collapse because the Chinese army gets involved in a war in Peru.

The knowledge that so much change has already occurred can only come as a relief to those of us who have dreaded the apoplectic response of America to the impending collision with reality.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Back To The Future

Seattle Transit Blog added a new contributor recently, with Steve Thornton demanding more slums and fewer parks. It's tempting to dismiss this as just more of the park-bashing that defeated the Commons in the 90s, but, I think, important to look at what's actually being said.

The basic framework today is rote learning from Jane Jacobs, gone wrong. They remember that Jacobs championed a lively streetlife, but they never understood where or how this arises in the Jacobsean sphere, so they favor end results and tend to demand that somebody else make it happen.

Thornton, for example, goes on at great length about how the 9 acres proposed for a park on the waterfront should, instead, be used to make the kind of city he likes, with cotton candy sellers and clowns in each block, and great numbers of little 'shoppes', but not once does he say how this should be done, or why this should be done, considering the area is bounded on the north by the Pike Place Market and on the south by Pioneer Square. The Market and Pioneer Square are both just such lively streetlife areas as he claims to favor, and both are suffering from lack of trade. Apparently we have no shortage of actual area in which this could happen.

Thornton's argument fails wherever probed, but he, and the commenters, offer a self-portrait of the would-be artist as an angry young person. First, they claim to be acting on behalf of God to save the environment from development- as unlikely as their path may appear to be. Because they're acting for God, they don't need to worry about the details, but because they themselves are weak, they limit their attacks to public parks or other social amenities. This gives them a double bonus of publicity value as wacky contradictorians, willing to stand up against the suffocating blanket of good taste in order to honor their principles.

And their principles are made pretty plain by reading what they write and read. They like new restaurants and food carts, confuse small bookstores with literacy, think a thriving trade in jewelry and clothing is the beating commercial heart of Seattle, and think transit can be much improved by electronic systems that tell you when you have enough time to get another cup of coffee before your bus arrives. Oh, and they think the viaduct looks really cool.

So, a bunch of lovers of Stalinist architecture who think Seattle should close the parks, provide more slum housing, and encourage small businesses- where have I heard that before?

Oh, that's right, that was the Seattle of the 50s, the Seattle of the Public Library and Municipal Building that have subsequently been torn down because they were too ugly to live. That was the Seattle that zoned the Regrade to prevent high-rise development and keep space for manufacturing close to downtown. That was the Seattle that 'couldn't afford' parks because of the sweetheart deals with businesses that kept city revenues down. That Seattle let developers built the Edgewater and other buildings on stilts over the water.

And that was wrong. It turned out that if we valued and protected our parks, Seattle became a more attractive place to live. It turned out that when the Building Department was forced to obey the law, most notably in the Roanoke Reef case, business flourished and Seattle became more prosperous. It turned out that First Avenue became more prosperous, not less, when the myriad of tattoo shops and pawn shops finally closed their doors.

So, thanks, but no thanks. You can take your Stalinist yearnings for architecture and your confused muttering about environmentalism and peddle it elsewhere. I've heard a duck fart underwater before.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What is Right? (Tax Edition)

Sooner or later most of us encounter a financial adviser who tells us that the average household spends about 30% on housing and 20% on food, and, while our household may not be average, it's good to think in those terms occasionally as a yardstick.

So, what should we pay in taxes? In most of the world that looks like someplace we might want to be, people pay about 50% of their income in taxes, most of them without grumbling.

It's the price we pay for good government, and good government is the reason we're not still living in mud-daub huts. Good government is not something we can afford thanks to the productivity of modern trucks- modern trucks are something we can afford because we have good government.

There's all kinds of dimensions to this, but the bottom line is that if we wish to continue living as a first-world nation, we need to pay taxes at first-world rates. It's not a hard-and-fast figure, but a yardstick for use in understanding the general proportions of the problem, and of the solution.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Beware the Female of the Species

Hillary Clinton cites, as proof of terrorist conspiracies, the fact that “these drug cartels are now showing more and more indices of insurgency; all of a sudden, car bombs show up which weren’t there before.”

So, that would be totally different from that time in 1976 when the CIA helped a Chilean death squad to murder Orlando Letelier with a car bomb in Washington DC, right?

I'm pretty sure that there's a conspiracy to set off bombs and attack democratic government, and pretty sure Hillary is one of the ringleaders. All of a sudden, word bombs are being dropped by Hillary about more US war in Central and South America, word bombs that weren't there before.

Seattle- Not A Streetcar Suburb

It's fashionable now to describe Seattle as a city with 'streetcar suburbs', but maybe more interesting to see how this statement is wrong than how it is right. Seattle was suburban before the coming of the streetcars.

Seattle was first of all a city of ships and boats, spawning suburbanization around the shores of Puget Sound and the sloughs, rivers, and lakes. In this we find the explanation for many places that today are curiosities or question marks, reminders of the time when the Green River flowed backwards for half the year, and the produce of the Issaquah farms traveled down the Sammamish Slough, through Bothell, and to Seattle.

Then the cable cars virtually leveled the hills between Seattle and Lake Washington, making it a nickel ride to lake steamers at Leschi and Madison that spurred suburban development around the shores of the lake even before the streetcars had begun infilling the Central District or Queen Anne.

Then came the streetcars, and it will always be a matter of interest to me to grab an old streetcar map and drive the routes, to see how that infrastructure of buildings and development has survived, albeit often in fossil form. Along with the streetcars came the interurbans and linear development in the Rainier Valley and out north through Greenwood.

But the automobile was too perfectly suited to the topography for Seattle to resist it even for a moment, quite arguably virtually doubling the number of buildable sites in the city, a development still discernible on the north face of Queen Anne, a neighborhood close to the city core but denied by gradient to the streetcar.

It should not surprise us, then, if the next big change in transportation is discontinuous and creates development where none was expected. White Center or Burien- can't remember which- is now planning for 35-story skyscrapers, and it's hard not to hear this as a 'come hither' call to Sound Transit to build southwards. Extending light rail to Issaquah on the I-90 ROW would cost a fraction of what the Redmond route will cost and pass closer to Bellevue Community College. In the city, streetcars and light rail will not be built by real estate developers to serve single family dwellings, but by public agencies to serve many different needs.

It's ok to think out of the box now- you're in Seattle.

And now this word from our sponsors...

Saturday, September 11, 2010

9/11 and Pearl Harbor Iconography

Anyone watching world events in November of 1941 knew that an attack by Japan on the US was a matter of days or weeks, possibly a month at the most. Anyone familiar with the fleet exercises off Panama in the early 1930s and the British attack at Taranto could have predicted a spoiler attack by the Japanese at Pearl. None of this came as a big surprise to Roosevelt or our joint chiefs.

To the average American, the surprise was devastating. Japan, a land they knew as an exporter of tin toys and wooden dolls, and considered to be comically inferior to Americans, had not only attacked us, but won. Why, if the Japanese could attack us, why not the Cubans or Java Islanders? Suddenly, it appeared that any insignificant-appearing country could in actuality be a ravaging military dictatorship seeking to rule the world.

This fog of paranoia proved so useful to the military-industrial complex that billions have been spent in the years that followed to propagate the tale. Like a cargo cult waiting for the silver bird to return, America waited for the next Pearl Harbor- and it came!

Imagine the feelings of relief and joy at the sight of the two towers falling! For nearly a decade our feelings of fear had been eroded by the collapse of our only "real" enemy, but now we had new proof we should be afraid! America had once again been anointed in the blood of the innocent victim and marveled anew at how such events could so totally come out of nowhere. Now young people as well as old could tell their stories of where they were on that awful day when we were so viciously attacked.

Uh, well, maybe not to the point of raising taxes to pay for a war on our enemy. There are limits.

What's Wrong With Obama?

Bill McKibben reports that Obama has turned down an offer of a solar panel for the White House. This offer, of course, is symbolic, as is the actual solar panel, one of those Carter installed in the 70s.

Did you want to slap me in the face? Well, thank you very much, Mr. Corporate President, afraid that your billionaire buddies might not let you in the club if you hang around with environmentalists.

But maybe what Obama should learn from Carter is that life does not end when you leave the White House. Like Carter, Obama will probably have about 30 years in which to reconsider the wisdom of his acts. Judging from this performance, those will probably be painful years for him- and for us.

Friday, September 10, 2010

America and Pakistan

It's tempting to think that if the Pakistanis can't govern themselves, they are doomed to the evils of oligarchy and gangster rule. It's especially tempting because it lets us off the hook for our role in creating this disaster.

The Pakistanis might very well have that good government, if we hadn't stepped in along the way to support military dictatorships. The Pakistani-Indian rift might well be healed if we had not exploited those differences to challenge the Russians in the Indian Ocean.

It's not an accident that a large border area of Pakistan-Afghanistan serves as a terrorist base area- that was our plan. That was also "fighting the Russians".

And it's not an accident that timber cutting in Pakistan by timber poachers denuded hillsides and unleashed the floodwaters of a globally-superheated storm. Stealing the natural resources by dealing with local thieves is what "free trade" is all about.

Like the US-Mexico border, we've created a problem in Pakistan. Kinda makes you wonder- could there be even more of these problems coming in the years ahead?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

America, Seattle, and the Streetcar

The horse car, and then the street car, lifted Americans from the mud and horse manure that formed their roads, and sheltered them from the rain and snow. As a stable consumer of power, it subsidized the building of power plants and spread of electricity, and it usually maintained the streets, often paving them, that the streetcars ran on. It made it possible to build bigger factories with larger numbers of workers from further away.

And then, as suddenly as it had come, the streetcar era was over, and American bought automobiles instead. The streetcars of the day were hard-riding cramped single-truck cars for which nobody grieved. In America the day of the streetcar was done by the time the PCC car was unveiled- a car that became the favorite of the world, but was rejected by America.

Since that time, the streetcar, and our circumstances, have evolved. In the many lines of Europe we can see this flowering, but in America we're still wondering what the role of the streetcar should be in transit and urban planning.

We seem to know that, because of the low speed of streetcars, 3-5 miles seems to be a good length for a streetcar line. Development clusters readily on streetcar lines and property values increase. With this and other factors in mind, it becomes possible to imagine specific roles for the streetcar in the city of your choice.

Arguably, Seattleites should be doing a lot of such imagining. Seattle is essentially a small city, and the projected funding for high-capacity rail transit is claimed for many years into the future by Sound Transit and their Link lines and extensions. Creating viable in-city transit improvements should be high on the list for Seattleites.

I'm hoping to sketch some imaginary lines in the future, but for now, the point is that the factors that created our original lines will not be the factors that create the new lines we need, and the streetcars we build today are vastly different from the streetcars we rejected then.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Planning For The Worst

Seattle transit fans are surely among the most pathetic techno-dork wannabes in the history of ever. Like a sailor blown off his ship into the water, they see any semblance of transit as a timber to be grasped and clung to to buoy their hopes. And for the existing agencies, they feel the same affection a sailor feels for the ship at sea, which is to say, the best damn ship is the one with me on it.

Consider the Seattle Streetcar Plan. Never actually a plan, then-Mayor Nickels had requested SDOT to identify possible streetcar routes, and five were briefly sketched. This was at once more and less than any mayor of the past 50 years had done for rail transit in Seattle. The problems lay in how the Seattle transit fans began trying to see how the plan would work- and in the subsequent emergence of what seemed to be a better plan.

In part because there was no plan, it was hard to see how the plan would work. And then, along came candidate McGinn, who stripped planning to the barest essential of proclaiming that voters would have a chance to vote on a plan, and thus raised it to the highest plane, that of the ethereal. Unencumbered by any physical reality, imagination could soar, and the tide turned savagely against streetcars until the McGinniacs began to figure out that those streetcars might be all they got out of McGinn- if that.

Maybe the saddest part of this story is that if McGinn had any real interest in transit, he could have kept the ball rolling that Nickels started, but to McGinn transit is just a glittering bauble with which to beguile Seattle's transit children.- yet his supporters cling to him, like sailors clutching wreckage in a stormy sea. But without a strong leader, a person, perhaps, who would draw a line in the sand and declare the electric trolley buses must be renewed and expanded, the inexorable forces of car and truck will expand during McGinn's term, not recede.

Ironically, Seattle transit fans might be better grounded in reality if they built model railroads, and learned there some of the differences between reality and the happy ability to decide for yourself where the line will run and what kind of neighborhood it will serve. Seattle presents some interesting problems for coming changes in transit, and there's no shortage of real solutions to consider.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Eminent Domain Not The Same As Communism

Imagine my surprise, while reading an article about how cities try to shrink to match their shrinking populations, to learn that "eminent domain was all but unheard of in Germany". That notwithstanding, Leipzig, the city in question, had acted to solve the problem with a different form of legal contract.

But just think of it! In that brutal monolithic Communist state of East Germany, eminent domain hardly exists. In reality, of course, businesses and private property continued to exist under 'communism' and, in fact, flourish where conditions allowed- witness the Czech dominance in streetcar manufacture for several decades.

Seattle doesn't need to think about shrink, but Tacoma would be blessed if they could. Today Tacoma is a shell of a city, sitting on a great site for a city. It would be a great place to live- if it were a city.

Dave Thompson used to say that "where there's a will, there's a fucking way", and a will, the will not to experience another 'own goal' disaster, seems to drive the Europeans to plan and build for a prosperous society. Part of how they do this is by having institutions so deeply rooted that concepts like communism or eminent domain just bounce off, and part of it is in knowing when the institutions need to change to deal with changing times.

One thing, though, seems clear- describing eminent domain as 'communism' is just plain wrong.

Monday, September 6, 2010

NAFTA and the Mexican Gangs

Nafta was meant to be a win-win treaty, at least for those who owned the businesses and the land. Mexico would open her doors to the import of US grain, and we would open our doors to the import of cheap manufactured products from Mexico. Wages would be lowered for US manufacturing workers, and peasants driven off the land in Mexico by falling grain prices, and all would be well with the world, as seen by people with lots of money.

So we helped the Mexicans assemble, in towns on our border, millions of incredibly poor people, working in brutal slave-labor conditions, or, by the tens of thousands, unemployed. Control of this area is what Mexican gangs fight over. Where our government would levy taxes, this drug-gang government collects protection money. The term 'drug-gang' is actually a misnomer- these are really regular gangs with drugs as one of their largest businesses, but far from their only business.

In fact, there's every reason to suspect that intimidating labor leaders might have been an early, and ongoing, role for the gangsters in Mexico. If the workers aren't cheap, the goods aren't cheap, and keeping the workforces cheap usually means intimidation, and not providing the elements of good government- education, social services, utilities and sanitation, and the maintenance of public order.

Bill Clinton and Tony Blair think this is the best way to raise the living standards of the world. I'm not so sure.

The Years the Locusts Ate

It's strange to think that just two years ago Seattle seemed to have a bright future well in hand. It seemed then that the viaduct would come down, a new park would be built on the waterfront, a streetcar would be built from Seattle Center and down 1st Avenue to the International District, and the Museum of History and Industry would move to a new park at the south end of Lake Union. And, while a recession or depression would affect container traffic to the port, Seattle did not seem particularly vulnerable to economic failure. Boeing, we are so over you.

Since then, a new mayor has been elected- a mayor who has no apparent interest in a 1st Avenue streetcar line, a park on the Central Waterfront, or the long-cherished community goals for a park at the south end of Lake Union. Rather than appealing to the highest aspirations of urban citizenry, McGinn appeals to the lowest. Given a microphone, he trumpets his opposition to the tunnel on any occasion, no matter how inappropriate, like some bewildered pachyderm lost in our Packwood Forest.

Currently, a central element of McGinn-o-mania is the Pedestrian-Bike-Traffic Master Plan, expanded to encompass transit- a huge study due "soon" to guide us in planning bicycle and pedestrian paths and future transit needs. Clearly, McGinn hopes this document (or process) will provide a plan to build paths and possibly propose a light-rail line to the voters.

The insanity here is that you can't really build a new street grid for bikes and walkers in addition to the street grid we already own. Not to mention the fact that the existing streets already occupy all the best places. Duh. The "advanced thinking" of Seattle is still riding on the sidewalk with training wheels. As for slyly piggy-backing a light-rail proposal onto an effort initially directed towards paths, well, good luck with that one.

Any long-term resident of Seattle is, of course, inured to the urban gadfly and the nattering nabobs of negativity. It is, to some extent, what passes for wit. Garnish with heaping scoops of holier-than-thou and you have a concoction that will kill or cure any proposal- and, quite possibly, the body politic in which the proposal has hatched.

Saturday, September 4, 2010


In 2000 the Germans began construction of a new business and residential development in an old warehouse wharf neighborhood by Hamburg. They expect to have it mainly finished by the year 2030.

Ever the prudent engineers, the Germans consulted the best science available at the time, and have planned the new development to handle rises in sea level and flooding that may result from global warming. Not entirely coincidentally, the efficiencies of the new development also fight global warming at the source, by reducing carbon emissions.

This is your real explanation of the German banking genius- judicious and continuous pump-priming by governmental bodies investing in the future, over long periods of time. Take special note of the amounts of time required.

You can read more about HafenCity here.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Fundamental Contradictions of Railroads

Americans and Europeans began in the railroad business with two different backgrounds. In the US the concept of a corporation was almost a new thing. The antecedent was the corporate body, but in America those bodies were small and weak, and American industrial corporations grew with few restraints. In Europe, corporate bodies were of long standing, and any new proposal had to pass a long vetting process by cities, kings, parliaments, churches, and capital markets.

In both systems, railroads survived the first and one of the greatest shocks to their philosophy, the discovery that they couldn't function at all as they had been planned. The plan had been for the corporation to build a way, install rails, and then, when you wanted to use the way, you put your vehicle on the rails and went where you wanted to go. The railroad, in short, would function as a sort of improved toll road.

In just a few years, this was seen to be wrong and fallacious. To function properly, railroads needed to own and control all the vehicles using the rails. So managed, their fantastic improvement of transportation would obviously impact any society they came in contact with.

In America in the 1830s, this was hardly a problem. Virtually the entire continent could be developed by new railroads without impacting an existing business or king. The demand for transportation was so strong that it became the central fact of political and financial life for the states of the 'Old Northwest' in the 1830s.

In Europe, every constriction applied, from the competition of ports and waterways, to the belief that the monarch possessed as a right the granting of the corporate existence. The long practice of these constraints, however, also provided a framework for the gathering of funds and the building of the hugely capital-intensive railroads.

The later follow-on of these differences emerged in the 1880s and 1890s in America, when every strong railroad believed that with sufficient effort they could 'capture' a territory. Americans started thinking that if one railroad went broke, another would soon buy the line or build a new one, and, in fact, the railroads became so over-built that in 1918 the USRRA was able to slice tens of thousands of miles from the map and radically improve service.

In Europe, more of what we might call 'central planning' had built lines which had reasons, and would not be allowed to go broke and abruptly cease service. Nor, after a few disastrous experiences, were the European companies allowed to build without supervision. European railways entered the 20th century encumbered by the requirements of society, but by the end of the century the European roads were, with the sole exception of long-haul freight, vastly superior to our own.

How could this happen?