Earth Day Forum: What should I talk about?

Tomorrow, the Center for Sustainable Cities will have an Earth Day Forum

The Forum will feature SPPD’s environmental faculty on what they see as progress and challenges for policy and planning. Join Profs. Blanco, Mazmanian, Rose, Schweitzer, and Tang for a stimulating discussion.
Thursday 21 April 2011, 10:00am-12:00pm, RGL 219

SI was going to discuss the changing face of Federal environmental policy from 1970 to today, with regard to policies where I see the most contention and political change

a) NEPA (and by extension, CEQA)
b) The Clean Air Act
c) The Endangered Species Act

Interesting? No? If no, what else should I discuss?

Transit and energy

The Melbourne Urbanist, Alan Davies, commented on my commentary about rail cost benefit analysis:

I don’t fully get your argument about the relative impact of high energy prices on transit agencies and drivers, maybe you could expand on that one day?

Happy to.

Of course higher energy costs will affect drivers–we see it all it the time as gasoline prices change. If we can get our transit vehicles full of people, there’s no doubt that we can use less energy per person than if every person uses a car.

So the “relative impact” here in Alan’s question has more than one dimension. On the one hand, many transit advocates believe that higher energy prices are good for transit companies because it changes the relative prices between transit and cars. And transit companies sometimes do very clever things, too, to help reinforce that point: LA Metro, for example, is lowering its fares and doing a bunch of other promotions over the summer to try to get more gas-shocked drivers to jump on board. For transit companies operating half-empty vehicles, the marginal cost of serving another person is very small. If you are operating the vehicle anyway, it’s better for you if it’s full. For advocates, increasing the demand for the service is where they begin and end thinking about transit operations (and this has been a pressing issue, but it’s not the only issue.)

However, transit companies will also feel a pinch in higher energy costs in their operating expenses. Transit companies have a lot of energy-related costs, not just costs associated with powering their service. Even if all their own employees take rail transit (which they don’t, which means that transit companies will have to compensate labor differently than in low-cost energy contexts), they have maintenance and construction obligations, and all of those inputs rely in turn on energy inputs that are unrelated to the relative efficiency of transit itself as a mode.

While we can be happy about the energy efficiency of rail transit, high energy prices will hit transit companies every time they deploy service vehicles (a lot in big systems) and with every construction and maintenance project that requires materials (all of them).

The transit company’s service, then, may be cheap relative to driving, but the agency’s fixed and operating costs are going to go up vis-a-vis higher energy costs.

Transit companies are therefore going to be an environment where they are facing higher demand and higher costs. Because transit companies are not recovering a full share of the operating costs from passengers, the question for how well they fare under increasing cost and demand scenarios depends a lot on policy. Either they will raise fares (decreasing their price advantage over cars), find a stable and sustainable source of operating subsidy (my favorite), or they will cut service (or cut service and raise fares).

Finally, I don’t know why it’s so hard for people to understand that buses matter to operations. In all the rock throwing between bus rapid transit (BRT) and light rail, the very important role that buses have in supporting rail networks has gotten lost.

Even if people like me to stop objecting to every money-gobbling light rail project in every little podunk Portland-wannabe mid-size city that has been losing population since 1940, we still need good-quality bus services to support train operations, even in cities where the subways are king. Ever notice how many buses there are all over high-transit usage towns, even though there are a lot of trains?

Good quality transit requires both trains and buses, and buses require fuel. When fuel gets expensive, transit companies will feel that, too. Atlanta cut down its bus service after it invested in its light rail, and it lost riders instead of gaining them. That’s the sort of thing that could easily happen to places that cut their buses hoping that people will be able to make do with the rail service alone: in many, many systems, they can’t.

On grading jail, more gay cowboys, and why professors drink a lot of wine

Confessions of A Community College Dean is a great academic blog. Dean Dad dispenses marvelous advice, and is often brilliantly funny.

My favorite post of all time is one that appeared in February 2006: Men in Hats, Or Why I’m Glad I Don’t Teach Composition Anymore.

Here’s the first part of the essay:

With little ones, we don’t get out to movies very often. This weekend was a major exception, with two movies in two days. I took The Boy to see Curious George, and The Wife to see Brokeback Mountain.

Seeing two movies back-to-back prompted the inevitable comparisons, which, in turn, brought back memories of those awful “compare and contrast” essay assignments from my days teaching composition 1. What follows is a compare-and-contrast essay, in the style of a freshman composition student, about the two movies. I did my best to get the prose style right. For those who’ve never taught a class that involved grading freshman papers, you might want to take a stiff drink before reading more…


Although Curious George and Brokeback Mountain share many similarities, they also share many differences. Both involve men in hats, but the meaning of the hat changes.

Curious George is the story of a monkey and the man he adopts. The Man in the Yellow Hat works in a museum, where he never figures out that Drew Barrymore has a crush on him. He must be gay or something. He gets sent to Africa to find a statue that could save the museum. He doesn’t, but he could of if he had figured out how to read the map. A monkey steals his hat, which is like stealing his identity, but it’s a hat. It’s an example of nature’s inhumanity to man.

Anyway, the monkey follows the man back to New York City. They get into alot of adventures. Just when The Man and Drew Barrymore are about to hook up, George starts firing off a rocket. This is called symbolism. Then they go around the world again and again (The Man and George, not The Man and Drew).

Brokeback Mountain is about two gay cowboys. We know they’re gay cause they have sex. Also cause they don’t like Anne Hathaway, Michele Williams, and that chick who played Lindsay on Freaks and Geeks and is on ER now. They both wear cowboy hats, but not yellow ones.

Go read the rest on Dean Dad’s page.

When gay penguins attack!

To shore up your environmental intellectual side, we should probably have a discussion about children’s stories that humanize or anthropomorphize animals, portraying them as having human relations, emotions, and understandings. (By the way, it’s obvious that animals do have relationships, emotions, and understandings, but I suspect that it’s bad for us (and for animals) to always frame these in our own, human terms.)

There’s a whole boatload of literary and environmental criticism on the topic, but my favorite book that touches on the subject is Matt Cartmill’s A View to a Death in the Morning: Hunting and Nature Through History (Harvard University Press 1996).

I’ve been thinking about animal imagery this morning, as I often do, when I happened upon the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books–that’s shorthand for books that people want drummed out of library because books about things you don’t like are scary. Just like professors who say things you don’t like are scary.

So this time out of the chute, the numero uno most challenged book is about gay penguins:

“And Tango Makes Three” by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson

The cover even has some lecherous penguin porn:

And tango makes three

So there’s some socio-cultural environmental and sustainability soup for you this morning. I might point out that if global warming becomes catastrophic, we’ll not have to worry about penguins, gay or otherwise, any more, let alone their ability to corrupt American youth.

What I learned from Laura Westra at the Loyola Marymount Urban Sustainability Retreat

I have been following Laura Westra’s work for some time, and while I have always liked her work, I had never met her. Yesterday, I got the privilege, and she is both brilliant and delightful.

Let’s put it this way: she had a long and productive career as a philosopher, and then, at age 65, her Canadian University aged her out and she responded by turning around and getting another PhD in jurisprudence and the law. She is in her 70s, she looks fabulous (yesterday she was wearing a grey zipper suit, heels, bright turquoise glasses, and pearl hoop earrings.) She has a black belt in karate, but she doesn’t do karate any more: she does kickboxing.

She has written and edited 24 books. This is her method, loosely transcribed:

“I write it all down with a pen and a paper. Then I go through and type it all. I have a Smith Corona–such a wonderful machine. There is only one man–a wonderful little man–who fixed all these typewriters for his business for many years. Now he is long retired, but he still fixes my Smith Corona for me. I don’t use the technology. It’s too distracting.”

Laura is a rights theorist, and here are three books with which to start:

Environmental Justice and & the Rights of Ecological Refugees

Environmental Justice and the Rights of Future Generations:Law, Environmental Harm, and the Right to Health

Environmental Justice and Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

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Upcoming Speaking Engagements

On the off chance that (wise, wonderful, and brilliant, especially at salary determining time) Dean is reading this blog, I wanted to let people know that I am not just sitting around cluttering up the world:

So I’ve got a bunch of public events coming up.

April 14- 16, Loyola Marymount: Symposium on the Sustainable City Coddling Cars and Shortchanging Kids: The Environmental and Social Consequences of Contemporary Tax Aversion.

Thursday, April USC Center for Sustainable Cities Earth Day Event: Today’s Challenges in Environmental Policy and Planning

Monday-Tuesday, May 2 & 3, Center for Sustainable California High Speed Rail and Smart Growth. I will be speaking to the social equity questions.

What to do with the City of Vernon?

Posting has been light around here lately, as I have been fighting my way to the end of the school year. However just to keep the fires on here, I thought I’d post about a story in the LA Times about a bill to disband the city of Vernon:

The bill’s author, Assembly Speaker John Pérez (D-Los Angeles), urged support for dissolving Vernon’s municipal government, calling it “a city whose corruption is the worst we’ve seen in the state.” He said the city, which has fewer than 100 residents but has 1,800 businesses, has for decades been controlled by a small group of people who have run it as a personal fiefdom.

The side against the move argues taxes and jobs:

Dozens of members of the coalition voiced their opposition at the packed hearing, saying that the bill would cause job losses. Without the advantages that Vernon provides — low tax and utility rates among them — many business owners said they would be forced to leave the state.

“This is real,” said Matt Wenzel, director of operations at a uniform company in Vernon. “If this bill passes, I am going to have to lay people off.”

Vernon is an interesting place here in Los Angeles. We should know a couple of things about it, as we consider the proposal. First of all, Los Angeles is the biggest manufacturing center in North America. The manufacturing in LA occurs in the center of the regional; there are thousands of acres, splitting east from west LA.

Secondly, these are heavy injuries, and the city of Vernon arguably hasn’t governed them particularly well, from the company-town nature of the place to its less-than-cordial relationships with the surrounding city of Los Angeles.

What do you thinK?

Rail cost-benefit analysis

Peter Gordon, Robert Cervero, and I discuss the cost-benefit analysis of Los Angeles rail investment in this issue of Public Works Management and Policy.
Here are the citations

Peter Gordon and Paige Elise Kolesar. A Note on Rail Transit Cost-Benefit Analysis: Do Nonuser Benefits Make a Difference?
Public Works Management & Policy April 2011 16: 100-110, first published on March 24, 2011 doi:10.1177/1087724X10397380

Robert Cervero and Erick Guerra
To T or Not to T: A Ballpark Assessment of the Costs and Benefits of Urban Rail Transportation
Public Works Management & Policy April 2011 16: 111-128, first published on March 24, 2011 doi:10.1177/1087724X10397379


Lisa Schweitzer
Benefit-Cost Analysis of Rail Projects: A Commentary Public Works Management & Policy April 2011 16: 129-131, doi:10.1177/1087724X11401035

Here are first few paragraphs of my commentary.

The debate in this issue of PWMP reflects a hardy perennial in the transportation community. With some consistency, rail transit fails to meet benefit–cost criteria or ridership forecasts. Planners and transit advocates—often these are the same—respond that benefit-cost analysis is only a partial measure of a project’s worthiness. How, they ask, do you monetize the benefits of something like a trolley that reinvigorates a slumping downtown? Some of the things we could never imagine living without—like the Brooklyn Bridge—would probably have failed a benefit–cost test back in 1866
when the New York legislature authorized it. And now the bridge is an architectural icon in a region whose economic health has come to rely at least in part on the aesthetics of investments made more than a century ago.

As vocal as transit advocates have become in dismissing those who question rail investment based on benefit–cost evaluations, rail advocates have more than earned the suspicion that surrounds them. Promise after promise accompanies the push to get federal dollars for local rail transit projects: for example, transit cleans up the air (not so much); it clears up congestion (not even close); it makes us thin (even though study after study demonstrates transit’s minuscule effects on obesity). Whenever anyone points out that projects have not delivered on their promises, then comes the next flood of promises: Jobs, jobs, jobs! Climate change! Building social capital! Economic development! Retail revitalization! At some point, investments have to be accountable for the promises made on their behalf. Cervero and Guerra contend that the mobility benefits accrue to future generations—future riders. If so, that is an empirical claim we can and should test. Some systems over time will jump over the bar their advocates set for them while others are unlikely to do so.