Green moral tradeoffs in the WashPo

Like most Whole Foods shoppers, David Bain thinks he is a decent citizen of Earth. His family buys mostly organic food. They recycle. He recently fortified his green credentials by removing a leaking oil tank in his yard. But here’s a head scratcher: Though the Bains live in Arlington within walking distance of Whole Foods, they often drive there in an SUV that gets just 19 miles per gallon. He has noticed that his SUV is not alone in the lot.

link: Why going green won’t make you better or save you money

This is passed along from Alan Hyunh, one of SPPD’s wonderful undergraduates.

Ok, I don’t actually feel virtuous shopping at Whole Foods (I usually just feel rather ripped off), but the fundamental question is: Do I have to do everything 100 percent whole hog to be a “good” person. The last example is a good one: so she eats some ice cream because she exercises and works it off (in her mind). Now, yes, in the world of absolutes, she should exercise and eat carrots. But she’s not worse off having exercised if she was going to eat the ice cream anyway.

So if there is a rebound effect–what environmental economists call it when you get an efficient car or lights and start using them more-are you worse off then if you just used your regular? What if you use transit to commute and then use that as a rationale to use air travel every two weeks?

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Orange Line Station at 1700 and frequency frequency frequency

So I took Andy on his first trip on the Orange Line last night up into the valley. We had to travel at rush hour, which is never pleasant, and the Red Line–LA’s subway–was sweltering hot, crowded cheek to jowl, nowhere to sit. So we hung onto a pole for 40 minutes getting jerked around stop after stop.

Exiting the subway, we walked across the street to the Orange Line platform. We decided to let the first go without us because I was tired of being crowded and bam! Five minutes later, there was another bus.

Air conditioned, perfectly comfortable, and I *swear* faster than the Gold Line and large swaths of the Blue Line–both LRTs.

One of the things that gets lost in the crush to build build build build in transit is just how important frequency is. Is transit great in London because of the geographic coverage of the Tube? Or is it great because buses come every five minutes? Or, as I would argue, both?

As it is now, if transit operators have a choice between building and operating frequency, they’ll build every time. Such a terrible mistake that undermines transit more than any mythical “car lobby” ever could.

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Bookstores and some good things about Detroit

One of my fellow travelers at UCLA chided me for never having any good news about Detroit. So I have been trying to think of things that I really love about Detroit. There are a number of things, the Lions being one, but the John K. King Used & Rare Books is another. Four stories of books in an abandoned glove factory, shown there, it is featured in, hands-down, the most interesting thing ever on the HuffPo:

Bookstores We Love For Their Spirit Of Independence (PHOTOS)

Make to go through and vote 100 times for my favorite store, ever, Prairie Lights in Iowa City:

Here’s a YouTube video of the very cool Paul Ingram enthusing (and he does enthuse) about books in his most charming way: this time about Marilynne Robinson and his favorite books.

And just because it’s pretty: Left Bank Books in St. Louis Missouri, whose Cardinals destroyed my poor Dodgers again today:

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Federal buildings for transit access?

The US DOT at the beginning of July issued guidance for increasing the sustainability of Federal buildings:

Siting buildings in sustainable locations will help insure that workers and the visiting public have convenient, safe transportation options to reach federal facilities, which in turn will help to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that result from worker and visitor commuting and will better integrate the federal presence into the surrounding community. Additionally, this improved access will lower transportation costs for workers and visitors and can provide communities with employment centers that can help drive economic development

link: DOT Press release

I wonder about this. Most of these kinds of things are symbolic politics, I think, where a loud and active leader like Ray LaHood wants to send a strong message this isn’t your parents’ DOT. The principals:

• Promote efficient travel and ensure access to transit to reduce the need for employees and the public to drive to the facility. • Locate in existing central business districts and rural town centers. • Locate near or be accessible to affordable housing. • Ensure the ability to walk or bike to the facility. • Use existing buildings, infrastructure and other resources. • Foster the development of previously developed, abandoned or underused locations known as greyfields or brownfields. • Encourage adaptive reuse of historic buildings and districts. • Preserve the natural environment. • Achieve agency goals for reducing emissions as set out in their Sustainable Strategic Performance Plans. • Discuss location alternatives with local and regional planning officials and consider their recommendations.

link: DOT Press release

These are pretty general planner recommendations. However, am I the only one who thinks that the clusters of federal buildings in DC are almost like superblocks in their domination of the city core in some places?

The DuPont Circle neighborhood is a great exemplar I think of what compact development advocates are trying to get at. But when you go farther down towards the capitol and the White House…it’s not as nice an urban place as the smaller scale, mixed use districts farther up Connecticut Avenue.

Tired cliches, a bacon apology, bad social science, and sidewalks/foreclosures (again)

So there’s been a debate between Joel Kotkin, who is described here as an “apologist” for the suburbs, and Chris Leinberger. Do suburbs need apologists? Is that like being an apologist for capitalism? Can I be the apologist for bacon? Bacon is sorry that it is bad for you, but it is really so delicious.

Sorry, focussing.

Chris Leinberger, who is the director of the University of Michigan real estate graduate program, whips out a tired cliche about the social sciences which makes me angry enough to want to move to the suburbs, learn to drive, buy an SUV, and do nothing but drive it all day–just to annoy him as much as this annoys me:

This happens all the time in social science research. It is best reflected in the story of a drunk who staggers out of a house late at night, dropping his keys near the front steps. He walks the 20 feet to the curb by the street light and starts looking for his keys there. A friend asks him why he is looking there since he dropped them at the front steps. The drunk replies he is looking for the keys by the curb because that is where the light is. Social scientists look for answers where the data sets are, not always where the “keys” are.

link: Walking — Not Just for Cities Anymore – Up Front Blog – Brookings Institution

Or, alternative to what “happens all the time” in social science research, advocates trot out this tired drunk guy-keys-streetlight analogy “all the time” when they are confronted with theories and analysis that contradict their ideology. And as we all know, the absence of evidence is always reason to assume that what I think is totally right.

And you know what else is cool about whatever it is I think? There’s a silent majority that agrees with me. All. The. Time.

This analogy is insulting, tired and wrong. If Leinberger and the people he runs with don’t collect data suited to answer their research questions, that’s what we hereabouts call “bad social science research.” Yeah, it exists, sure, just like there are bad doctors. But there’s a difference between good and bad social science–and in particular, between bad and good policy analysis.

To Leinberger’s points:

There’s demographic evidence; there’s consumer research evidence; but probably the most compelling evidence is the price premium people are willing to pay to live in a walkable urban place, that the survey’s show anywhere from a 40% to 200% price premium on a price per square foot basis for a walkable urban place as oppose to a competitive near by drivable suburban place.

link: Christopher B. Leinberger – Brookings Institution

First of all, if housing that has amenities like sidewalks and nearby businesses and transit aren’t still going for higher prices, I’d have to start over in life because something like that would turn urban economic theory in ways I can’t fathom.

So even with the recession and price adjustments, places with amenities are still higher in price than places that don’t have amenities. OK.

And centralized locations “have a price premium” over places on the fringe. Again, OK.

These two things are pretty standard urban economic fare, and why Leinberger pronounces them like they are major new evidence about recession consequences and new markets is a bit mystifying.

Let’s try a couple of thought experiments to see why none of this walkability stuff probably has all that much to do with the recession or being underwater, in sum. What if every region were a New Urbanist dream? Absolutely everywhere in our theoretical New Urbanist region is densely populated, mixed use, walkable, and served by public transit. There is nothing but high-rise condos in this regional market. And every condo is sold in units of 1,000 square feet. If you want more, you buy more units and knock walls down.

In that case, would there be a “price premium” for walkable neighborhoods? No. Why not? For the same reason that one neighborhood doesn’t have a national defense price premium over another, or a premium for unobstructed views of Saturn’s rings. In Lamont, IA, where you can walk from one side of town to the other in 20 minutes, everybody’s got the same walkability and urban amenity set, and none of the houses carries a premium value for sidewalks. Everybody’s got sidewalks, and the 5 minute difference between your walk to the library and my walk to the library is irrelevant. Everybody has the same access or lack of access to these amenities, and thus differences in value derive from other things, like garages, fireplaces, etc.

Then in our ideal New Urbanist region where everywhere is a walkers’ paradise, let’s introduce some toxic ideas in the mix: lack of real wage growth for decades and the subsequent problem that Americans have been spending and borrowing too much for decades. Add some smart and unethical people looking for ways to make people who are actually getting poorer feel richer and come up with the idea of loosening up credit markets even more.

Let’s throw some dumb buyers in the mix and a deregulated system where dumb buyers’ risks can be passed from institution to institution, profitably.

So are suburban locations just plain inherently and essentially riskier because they aren’t walkable and don’t have that amenity value? Or did lower value land on the fringe provide both a) the opportunity to buy big houses and b) something for dumb buyers to buy, like stock for internet companies with no business plan 15 years ago?

If we had lived in a New Urbanist world with toxic lending and dumb buyers, wouldn’t we just be having the same conversation about underwater condos right on the urban growth boundary that we are having now about underwater McMansions on the urban fringe? So dumb buyers overbought land in bubble regions; couldn’t and wouldn’t they have overbought location or lofts just as easily in an ideal New Urbanist region?

It shouldn’t surprise us that places with high prices and high amenity values also have fewer problems being underwater: those are places where demand is high and supply more restricted. I could probably replicate the “walkability and foreclosures findings” with other urban amenities, like wonderful schools or golf courses. Investing in place–whether through sidewalks or design–had damn well better be reflected in home values. If not, you are supplying things that people don’t value. The fact that amenities raise home values doesn’t win you any arguments–because perhaps we’d have an even higher bump from different urban services than walking. (I actually think walking/sidewalks/mixed uses are a cheap improvement, but when we get into expensive stuff like HSR, this counterfactual becomes important.)

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What if St. Paul had had High Speed Rail?

Ok, if the Acts and his letters are any indicator, Paul was an ambitious missionary and traveler. This is a website attempts to help us understand New Testament geography, and here is a map tries to track all of Paul’s travels, by boat, foot, and animal, from B. W. Johnson, The People’s New Testament (1891).

Compare that with an animated map from PBS showing the geographic spread of Christianity.

Geospatial networks!

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Land use conflict as public mourning

The Gothamist has a story about the land use conflict arising over the placement of a mosque two blocks from the World Trade Center site:

Opponents to the plan to build a mosque and community center two blocks from the World Trade Center site insist they’re not bigoted, intolerant Islamophobes, but just defenders of what’s appropriate. For example, one woman whose relative died on 9/11 recently told the local Community Board, “I am not a bigot and most of the people in this room are not bigots, I oppose the mosque because it’s in poor taste.” And the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Peter King, says, “Right at this moment in history, it’s bad form to put it there. There are things you are allowed to do, but that aren’t appropriate to do.” Ah, the Miss Manners approach. Can’t lose!

link: It’s a Great Day to Rant About That Mosque Near Ground Zero! – Gothamist

One phrase I wish I could strike from the English language is “I’m not a bigot/racist/sexist/whatever, but…” For one thing, it’s not like somebody who is an Archie Bunker style bigot would go walking around saying, “Well, I am, in fact, a bigot, and this is what I think.” No. You don’t have to be Archie Bunker to perform racist ideas or actions. This is one of the most hurtful and divisive things about our modern discussion about race. Everybody is sensitive–everybody–and everybody knows it’s not nice to be racist. As a result, racism is viewed as an attitude ignorant people choose to have rather than structuring aspect of culture, one that informs ideas and feelings, so that you may not choose to think that way.

In the case of the World Trade Center, this land use conflict illustrates multiple tensions, some of which do have to deal with bigotry. Let’s take a look at this statement:

King, who is a supporter of Republican Rick Lazio’s campaign for governor, told the AP yesterday, “We are at war with al-Qaida. I think the 9/11 families have a right to know where the funding comes from; I think there are significant questions.

link: It’s a Great Day to Rant About That Mosque Near Ground Zero! – Gothamist

We are, in fact, at war with al-Qaida, but al-Qaida isn’t asking for a variance or historic landmark status. A group of Americans are.

Racism, sexism, and isms in general involve selective focus. In the case of women in male dominated structures, it’s the selective focus on particular aspects of male strength and the systematic de-emphasis or refusal to acknowledge different aspects of women’s bodies as strong that helps encode the belief that men are somehow objectively stronger/more fit/etc than women. (I know that I will get arguments on this. Yes, you can beat me at arm wrestling and run faster. Can you produce food from your body? Which sex lives longer even after producing new life after new life? Selective attention can valorize or demonize whatever we want it to and distort any set of issues we want it to.)

For the mosque, it’s the selective attention to al Qaida’s association with Islamic fundamentalism as defining terrorism that reflects the selective vision. Would it be wrong to place a Republican Party office next to the Alfred P. Murrah Building? Or a National Rifle Association office? No Catholic churches? McVeigh was born a Catholic; he was active as a young Republican, and he held a membership in the NRA. Why are the religious and political affiliations of the 9/11 bombers allowed to define an entire group of people, but Tim McVeigh’s actions are an individual’s actions, entirely immune from group-level stereotyping of the white America in which he grew up? He’s a nut, we can all say, one nut. Not every NRA member is like this. Why use him (or pedophile priests) to exemplify Catholicism rather than Dorothy Day or Father Greg Boyle? Selectively focussing the traits of others as essentially one thing–while asserting the uniqueness and validity of our own individualism–is a luxury held among those within a dominant culture.

For another example: is the Southern Baptist Church responsible for the Klan, who are domestic terrorists, plain and simple?

Americans’ tendency to ignore history means that we are unable to draw lessons from times when we have had cause to grieve terrible losses and reflect on how our grief caused us react on prior occasions. And thus we make all the same mistakes. Pearl Harbor, 1941, a sneak attack on American soil, with 2,403 dead. After that, in grief and fear and war, Americans on the west coast of the US who are Japanese ethnicity were rounded up, put in camps without due process, their freedom and property seized. Americans now look upon that action–if they look at it all–with shame. Or we should. Because it was an act of bigotry that punished innocent individuals for sharing ethnic ties with a hostile nation-state. And yet, they were Americans, most for generations. If you plot the location of Japanese Community Center in Los Angeles during those troubled years, you can see a parallel between stigmatizing that land use and stigmatizing a mosque near the World Trade Center–as though no American Muslims died there, along with other Americans, like ethnically Japanese men in the US navy at Pearl Harbor.

Has there ever been an instance when, decades later, we haven’t deeply regretted broad-scale ethnic profiling?

How much deference should the families of 9/11 be shown in public discussions about the WTC location? Their feelings do matter, obviously, but the obligations of the public sphere also place limits on the entitlements of grief. Hammering that out has been a long, sad, and necessary process.

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