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Sunday, July 31, 2005
Bacon Grease for the War
Back when our nation was more humble than it is now, we fought and won a world war that was a stand against fascism and totalitarianism — a principled fight against evil regimes. Americans who weren't fighting had to sacrifice at home and there was a sense of urgency about it. Food was rationed. Gasoline was rationed, and driving was discouraged with a public relations campaign in which the above image was a part. Households were asked to send in such waste as bacon grease so that it could be used for the war effort. The United States won that war decisively, and thank God we did. Such savings and sacrifice would no doubt help us win today's war in Iraq, right?

My girlfriend and I, being the good subway, bus, and bicycle riding New Yorkers that we are, couldn't possibly drive less than we do now. But we wanted to take proactive action to help win this war. Well, let me tell you something: We like to eat a lot of bacon around here. Mmmm, yum! So for a few months we carefully saved up all bacon grease in a mug and got ready to ship it down to D.C. for the war effort. Here's a photo taken as the last day's worth of grease was being put into the mug!

We looked around for a place to send the grease, but we couldn't find one. It turns out that the government isn't asking for bacon grease. In fact, we found out they aren't rationing gasoline either. They aren't even promoting a public relations campaign like the one above to get people to cut down on driving. Hmmm, maybe that would defeat the purpose of the war.

Bob Herbert, the New York Times columnist, had a column on Thursday that suggests the real reason we went to war:
You can run through all the wildly varying rationales for this war: the weapons of mass destruction (that were never found), the need to remove the unmitigated evil of Saddam (whom we had once cozied up to), the connection to Al Qaeda (which was bogus), and one of President Bush's favorites, the need to fight the terrorists "over there" so we won't have to fight them here at home.

All the rationales have to genuflect before "The Prize," which was the title of Mr. Yergin's Pulitzer-Prize-winning book.

It's the oil, stupid.
This statement is a watered down version of what James Howard Kunstler has long been saying of the Iraq war: Of course it's about the oil. In The Long Emergency, he notes that the U.S. has 3% of the world's remaining oil reserves but uses 25% of all oil produced every day, that 60% of the world's remaining oil supply is in the Middle East, that "[i]n just a few years all the other oil-producing nations of the world will be past their individual peaks. This will leave Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait in a special and uncomfortable position, with an energy-starved world of armed and dangerous nations glaring hungrily at them (and menacingly at each other)." (I would add the United Arab Emirates and Iran to that short list, but the point is the same.) Then he writes,
What was the war in Iraq about? It was strategically about setting up a police station in the middle of a very large bad neighborhood. It was also about dividing the Islamic world physically in half to create a buffer between the aggressive gangs on the east side of the police station (Iraq, Iran, Pakistan) and the politically touchy gangs on the other side (Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and of course, the anomaly, Israel). On a closer scale, the Iraq war was an attempt to establish a forward base adjacent to Iran and Arabia, to moderate and influence the behavior of both of them, to discourage adventures by Iran and to be ready in case of trouble with Arabia. One of the first things the United States did after invading Iraq in 2003 was to station two armored divisions on the Iraq-Saudi Arabian border.
The war's purpose is to keep the oil flowing into our country so we can continue to run our Hummers and keep building more huge, expensive-to-cool McMansions far from any town center. Sacrifice? Ha! That would mean voluntarily restricting a way of life that Dick Cheney calls "non-negotiable." It would defeat the very purpose of the war, which, in a 180-degree reversal from the noble and just war we fought in the early 1940's, is being fought so that we don't have to sacrifice.

How different this administration is from Jimmy Carter's. He understood the importance of conservation for our national interest. Perhaps you could say he was a conservative. In the 1980 State of the Union address, he said:
As individuals and as families, few of us can produce energy by ourselves. But all of us can conserve energy — every one of us, every day of our lives. Tonight I call on you — in fact, all the people of America — to help our Nation. Conserve energy. Eliminate waste. Make 1980 indeed a year of energy conservation.
- Blood and Oil [Bob Herbert @ The NYT]
- Sacrifice, that pesky idea [The Oil Drum]
- All Quiet on the Home Front, and Some Soldiers Are Asking Why [NYT]
- The Long Emergency [James Howard Kunstler via B&N]
- Unifying a Nation - World War II Posters - Save and Sacrifice [New Hampshire State Library]
- State of the Union Address, 1980 [Jimmy Carter Library]
- Posted at 2:42 PM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |  

Saturday, July 30, 2005
The Multi-Billion-Dollar Parking Subsidy
Since I just posted an item decrying a bill that would create free on-street parking in New York City on Sundays, it's worth noting the theoretical underpinning tying free parking to traffic congestion. Donald Shoup, a professor of economics at UCLA, recently released a huge book detailing the many ills that arise out of the "free" parking that is everywhere in the United States and offering policy solutions.

There is an enormous subsidy given to motorists in this country in the form of "free" parking. And by enormous, I mean $127 billion to $374 billion per year. Companies that give their employees free parking spaces but don't give non-drivers a comparable sum of money encourage driving, congestion, pollution, and further sprawl. So do all the strip malls all over the country with all their parking built at no apparent cost to the motorist. Slices of free pizza go a lot more quickly than pizza that costs money to buy, and the same is true for the parking subsidy. If you build "free" parking spaces, people will use them.

In New York City, parking is expensive (except, in the near future, on Sundays). In the rest of the country, it's free to the driver. For a good explanation of the problems this creates, see these links:

- Oceans of Parking - A Tragedy of the Commons [Mobilizing the Region]
- The High Cost of Free Parking Part II - The Problem With Zoning [Mobilizing the Region]
- The High Cost of Free Parking [American Planning Association Store]
- Posted at 2:27 AM | Permalink | Comments: 2 | Post a Comment |  

Thursday, July 28, 2005
The Automobile, Our Salvation
The New York City Council voted 43 to 1 make parking meters inoperative on Sundays. On the front page of The New York Times' Metro Section this morning, that news was reported right above a story about six people killed in a horrific traffic accident in the Catskills. So here we have, side by side, a story about one of the many problems with our auto-dependent way of life, and another story about how we're trying to further it.

Even as peer cities are winning enormous benefits by encouraging a transition to other transportation modes, this is typical of New York City's coddling of the automobile. As Aaron Naparstek explains, London and many other cities have congestion-free streets now that they have introduced peak hour pricing in inner city regions. This has reduced unnecessary car travel drastically, made these cities more livable, and eliminiated enormous amounts of air pollution. But here in New York, our city council, in election year pandering to motorists, makes it easier to park on Sundays. By doing so, we're making it easier to own and operate a car, exactly what we should avoiding in a time of foreign oil dependence, war, human-induced climate change and impending chronic oil shortages. Difficulty in finding cheap parking is the strongest deterrent against using a car in New York City, encouraging people to use our 24-hour mass transit system, the most extensive in the country, if not the world. We need to promote alternatives to the car by any means necessary, but the City Council promotes it. Oddly enough, by allowing people to park all day, fewer spaces will open up, and it will be harder to find parking, but this is not the City Council's objective.

Imagine a world where churches weren't surrounded by huge parking lots, a world where people took the bus or train to their house of worship, or better yet, walked. There was a time when most people worshipped in their local neighborhood church or synagogue. Those days are long gone.

Here are three sites that deal with curbside parking and Sunday parking meters:

- An Investigation into Rational Pricing for Curbside Parking: What will be the effects of higher curbside parking prices in Manhattan? [Gary Roth's Urban Planning Master's Thesis, Columbia University]
- Automobile Worship [Aaron Naparstek]
- Sunday Meters [Peak Oil NYC]
- Posted at 8:14 PM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |  

Sunday, July 24, 2005
Rest in Peace, Franklin

Franklin, our two-year-old orange striped cat, was a constant companion and a never-ending source of entertainment. He had a habit of suddenly running across the apartment at top speed as if chasing some phantom object. He chased and swiped at flies with an amazingly intense focus, and loved to swat crumpled up pieces of paper across the floor, only to run after them and swat them again. But more than anything else, he loved cat food, which was part of the reason he had become enormously oversized. He also loved to stretch out in all kinds of crazy ways, be constantly underfoot, and scratch the carpet with his claws.

Franklin was first found in an abandoned lot in the West 130s in Harlem in May 2003. My girlfriend's former roommate found him at an ASPCA shelter on East 92nd Street in July 2003. When the roommate moved out of the country in May 2004, my girlfriend took custody of him, and he remained in their two-bedroom apartment in Washington Heights until May 2005, when we moved to the Financial District. He was extremely frightened by that move, and in fact spent 72 hours crouched behind a toilet, staring at a wall, before gaining the courage to come out and greet us. Yesterday, he was hit by a car and killed. He was taken to NYU Downtown Hospital before the police took him to the Manhattan Animal Care and Control office on East 110th Street, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

Franklin, we will miss you.
- Posted at 2:48 PM | Permalink | Comments: 4 | Post a Comment |  

Thursday, July 21, 2005
A Bright Spot for Sprawl-Based Chains

On July 6, Bloomberg carried a story wrapping up the day's activity on Wall Street. It was a bad day for the market. The news began, "U.S. stocks fell as oil prices breached $61 for the first time …" One salient point leapt out:
Restaurant chains such as Darden Restaurants Inc. and IHOP Corp. slumped after a Raymond James analyst said rising gasoline prices may cut into their customers' dining budgets.
Oil prices have backed off some since that record, but they are on an inevitable march upward. New York City, like many other old northeast cities, was largely built before the automobile. It is more convenient not to have a car here, and New Yorkers' disposable income will be less affected than others' by rising gasoline prices.

It's safe to assume that of all the IHOP restaurants in the country — all those identical single-use buildings set back behind ample free parking on sprawling commercial strips — there is at least one that will continue to draw customers as oil and gasoline prices rise. It is pictured above — the new IHOP at 135th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard (Seventh Avenue) in Harlem. Unlike the cookie-cutter IHOPs everywhere else, this one doesn't even have a single off-street parking space. Nor are there any lots or garages nearby. If you want to go to this IHOP, you might take the No. 2 or 3 train, or the B or the C, or the Bx33 or M2 buses, or you might come from a nearby building. In any event, you have to be prepared to walk. My girlfriend and I tried to get a table there on a Sunday some weeks ago, but the wait to be seated was 40 minutes, so we left for a less packed spot. According to this press release, this IHOP is the 14th most lucrative out of the 1,167 IHOPs in the U.S. and Canada, and on Sundays it serves 500 people per hour for eight straight hours.

Although chains like McDonald's and Burger King have been here in New York City for many decades, there has been a recent uptick in the level of interest in other national chains that have never had a presence in New York City, and have traditionally taken development patterns that would be anathema to the way we do business here. Most famoustly, the Home Depot and Costco have opened stores, and even Wal-Mart tried, before being shut down by a quickly mobilized cross section of humanity. Perhaps the reason for this heightened interest is the fact that chain stores are starting to realize they need to diversify their store base to include places that don't depend on automobile transport for their business. Whether they realize it or not, in a future without cheap oil, chain stores will need urban locations if they are to have any hope of remaining profitable.

Below is a photograph of the new building that includes the IHOP in question. It opened a year ago, but celebrated an official grand opening last October with an appearance by Mayor Bloomberg and Congressman Charles B. Rangel. This is another cutting edge project built in Harlem by the Abyssinian Development Corporation. It is an appropriately scaled high density mixed use building. Beyond the IHOP, most of the building houses the Thurgood Marshall Academy, a public middle and high school.

- U.S. Stocks Fall as Oil Prices Surge to Record; Darden Declines [Bloomberg]
- Mayor Serves Harlem Pancakes [Gothamist]
- White & Case LLP, Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation and Pancakes - A Recipe For Success [White & Case]
- Developer Drops Plan for City's First Wal-Mart [The New York Times]
- Posted at 11:54 PM | Permalink | Comments: 2 | Post a Comment |  

Sunday, July 17, 2005
Paying for the Right to Pollute
An article from Wired magazine's July 2005 issue is making the rounds on e-mail. It is worth quoting in full:
In Washington, DC, eco-vandals smear SUV door handles with dog crap. In Santa Cruz, California, protestors tag more than 60 gas-guzzlers with anti-oil graffiti. In Los Angeles, a Caltech grad student is sentenced to eight years in prison for trashing more than 120 SUVs around the city. It's almost enough to make you feel bad for SUV drivers. After all, some of them are green, too — just not as hardcore about it.

Now they have TerraPass, a clever eco-capitalism experiment. Launched by a group of Wharton Business School classmates, the startup sells a decal that drivers can slap on their windshields. The sticker price — $79.95 for SUVs, less for greener cars — gets invested in renewable energy projects and credits. The credits are traded through local brokers on the new Chicago Climate Exchange.

TerraPass lets consumers participate in an emissions trading system the US established in 1990. (Give credit to economist Ronald Coase, who won a Nobel Prize for the idea in 1991.) Under the system, industrial operations that spew less than their share of emissions can sell a credit to companies that fail to keep gunk out of the air. In effect, the dirtier factories can pay greener operations to do the work of cutting emissions. The approach has taken off worldwide, spawning a billion-dollar market.

And it's not just for big-time polluters. Today, farmers cash in on credits by collecting and processing cow dung, which produces globe-cooking methane. Land-owners earn credits by installing wind farms on their blustery fields, which top off the power grid with carbon-free electricity.

But until now, the Chicago Climate Exchange was off-limits to all but registered traders, and the transaction cost of buying credits piecemeal from small outfits was too high. TerraPass aggregates the money plunked down by guilty — ahem, environmentally concerned — SUV drivers, allowing them to participate in the market.

Burning a gallon of gasoline produces about 20 pounds of CO². So the average SUV — which travels 12,000 miles a year — pumps out about 20,000 pounds of greenhouse gases annually. On today's market, TerraPass can scrub that pollution from the environment for less than 80 bucks.

Only a few months old, with a staff just out of grad school and a membership of fewer than 1,000, TerraPass is no match for the world's half a billion cars — the second-biggest source of greenhouse gases. But Ned Ford, a member of the Sierra Club's Global Warming and Energy Committee, believes TerraPass could change the way people think about energy and the environment. "Politicians and business leaders have been telling us for the last 20 years that there's this huge painful cost associated with reducing carbon," he says.

"If you think about your own personal impact on CO², and you find out you can offset it for a reasonable amount of money, it makes you think differently about the problem. TerraPass is mind opening," he says, "and that's pretty cool."

— Douglas McGray

There are two interesting facts in this article. First is that every gallon of gasoline burned results in 20 pounds of carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere! Is that cost of environmental damage factored into the price at the pump? No, not even close. But it should be. I have long argued that gasoline prices are subsidized by the government far more than any rail transport is, and this is an example of how that happens. Record high gas prices are still too low, and should be raised to account for environmental damage burning gasoline causes. Second is that the average SUV owner emits 20,000 pounds of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere per year! How do SUV owners sleep at night? If regular sedan owners release even half this amount, how to they sleep at night?

TerraPass is a great idea because it raises awareness about auto pollution. But it's flaw is that it is voluntary, and it assumes that SUV owners are climate conscious. In fact, this program should be mandatory, like the industrial program is. That means that everyone has to pay the cost of automobile-created air pollution, even though only car users get the benefits of driving. If dirty industries must pay their non-polluting counterparts, then dirty drivers should pay nondrivers for the right to pollute.

Anybody who drives a car should go to the TerraPass website and calculate how much you pollute.

- SUV Redemption Sticker [Wired]
- Join TerraPass and Fight Climate Change [TerraPass]
- Posted at 1:35 PM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |  

The I-Word: "Impeach"
Every once in a while as I'm walking around the city I stumble upon a sticker or a bit of graffiti that says "Impeach Bush!" It's a faint cry coming from the people. I don't see anybody in Congress talking about this. Remember when President Clinton was impeached? What did he do again? Lied about sex with an intern (depending on how you define sex)?

What is Bush said to have done that is worthy of impeachment? Involved our country in a war under false pretenses? Is that really so bad? Well, it's resulted in a lot of deaths, jacked up world oil prices and ignited a generation's worth of anti-Americanism and no doubt helped terrorist recruiters enormously. Not only that, he did all this while forgetting to track down the real culprit of the attacks of 9/11.

Frank Rich of The New York Times today writes about Karl Rove's coming resignation:
The real culprit — the big enchilada, to borrow a 1973 John Ehrlichman phrase from the Nixon tapes — is not Mr. Rove but the gang that sent American sons and daughters to war on trumped-up grounds and in so doing diverted finite resources, human and otherwise, from fighting the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11.
It's hard to believe a guy can attack the greatest country in the world, then elude capture by that country for three years. Meanwhile, we're attacking bystanders and alienating the Arab world from us.

How many people died when Clinton lied about sex? None. How many people died when Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction? 1,764 United States soldier, 93 British soldiers, 101 other soldiers and about 24,000 Iraqis so far. We still haven't found bin Laden yet? If Gore, who received more votes in 2000 than Bush, were the president in 2001-'04, we'd have caught him by now.
- Posted at 1:09 PM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |  

Saturday, July 09, 2005
Retrofitting the Economy
Back on the Fourth of July, the Portsmouth (N.H.) Herald ran an article entitled "Heating Bills Likely to Double," about the anticipated high cost of home heating oil. The article began,
Residents can expect to pay twice as much to heat their homes this year over last … It's hard to think of heating costs in summer heat, yet soaring oil prices — an estimated $60 a barrel — have people digging deeper into their pockets to prepay for oil before the cost goes higher.
We all know the story of supply and demand: Over consumption leads to high prices. Oil undergirds everything we do, and high oil prices would wreck our economy, yada yada yada. Perhaps we should start to think about curtailing oil consumption. Given that, I've included a screen-grab of that article for your information and perhaps amusement:

The very page containing an article about ramifications of our excessive reliance on oil is littered with automobile advertising. Throughout niches on the Internet and in water cooler conversations or even television punditry and op-ed pieces people are starting to talk about the need for our country to reduce its oil consumption. Meanwhile, all over newspapers and especially on television and the radio, our auto- and oil-dependent economy is telling us: BUY CARS!

The thing we are best at right now — building more suburbia and pushing the cars that it requires — is the very thing sowing the seeds of our collapse. At some point, our nation will need to move to other industries besides suburan housing construction and automobile advertising. Those industries will have to be economically viable in an epoch of expensive oil. What might they be?

Folks, buy train tickets and bicycles. Maybe even buy a sailboat. If you are in a position to make decisions about shipping, hire a bike messenger, not FedEx, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, not a trucker. Diversify our transportation.
- Posted at 4:35 PM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |  

Wednesday, July 06, 2005
Cars and People, Mixing
The artist futurebird, a frequent behind-the-scenes contributor to this website and a photographer behind some of the pictures below, has long and unrelentingly argued that cab drivers more courteous and safe than people driving their own private vehicles on New York City streets. I have tried many times, somewhat politely but firmly, to scoff at this assertion, which I will do now: Cabs??? Those swerving, lurching, speeding, suddenly stopping, overworked and underpaid, casually reinterpreting red light cab drivers??? Not a chance. Well, on Monday night at the fireworks downtown, we observed some evidence that furthers her hypothesis.

As the fireworks ended, naturally a flood tide of humanity returned from the waterfront back toward the subway entrances at William Street and further inland. As seen above, this crowd came so suddenly that it engulfed a cab that had stopped at a red light, waiting to make a left turn. For some 20 minutes, huge crowds of people surged past this intersection, the cab stood where it was, frozen. Evoking the figues captured in mid-motion by the explosion of Pompeii, its left turn signal continued flashing the whole time. That turn signal, and even the act of keeping the engine running, seemed a little futile, but he was stuck and he knew it.

Now, it bears remembering that in order to qualify for a driver's license, potential drivers are tested for such things as coming to a complete stop at a stop sign and using turn signals at intersections. But in a 15-minute driving test, it is hard to test for a general level of common sense. Let me draw your attention to the New York State Driver's Manual and Study Guide. In the manual's introduction, Governor Pataki writes:
All of us want the highways in our great state of New York to be as safe as possible. Each of us can help by driving safely and considerately. Sharing our busy streets and highways with other travelers comes with significant responsibilities. … Please drive New York's roadways with caution and courtesy.
Theoretically, drivers who pass through the licensing process are supposed to have read that. They are also supposed to have read Chapter 11: Sharing the Road, which states:
Pedestrians are the highway users most at risk in traffic. As a driver, you must use extra caution to avoid colliding with pedestrians. Regardless of the rules of the road or right-of-way, the law specifically requires you to exercise great care to avoid striking pedestrians. … Remember also that pedestrians legally crossing at intersections always have the right-of-way. Do not pull in front of or behind them or to [sic] "hurry them along" — wait until they are out of the intersection.
With this in mind, here is the story, in pictures, of one particularly ridiculous motorist. In the midst of this pandemonium, some knucklehead creeps along with the flood tide of pedestrians. He pulls into the oncoming traffic lane and cuts off the cab (and the line of cars behind it).

Look how enormous that car is. It carried two people in a space where some 20 people would have stood. This guy's plan was to continue straight ahead through the intersection, into this:

Yeah! What a great idea that would have been. Blocked by a metal barricade and perhaps realizing that it would have been a bad idea anyway, he decides to take a left into the sidestreet the cab was trying to get to:

His passenger got out and started shooing people away from the turning car. There is no doubt that the the two of them faced some verbal abuse for this course of action. Finally, they cleared out, leaving a gaping hole in the crowd, and the cabbie, with a passenger no less(!), still patiently waiting his turn.

These folks must have been stuck there for 15 to 20 minutes, annoying theselves and irritating hundreds of people. How about some patience? That would have avoided the angst, the verbal abuse, saved them time, helped the pedestrians get to where they were going faster and wouldn't have put them at risk of getting hit. Suppose someone was injured by this driver? Do you think the police and courts would have said it was the motorist's fault? Or would they have blamed the pedestrian?
- Posted at 1:21 PM | Permalink | Comments: 6 | Post a Comment |  

Tuesday, July 05, 2005
Leisuretime Class Divisions
Photo by the artist futurebird.
Starts & Fits attended the delightful and thunderous fireworks display downtown yesterday evening. The streets were filled with the entire population of Washington Heights, Harlem, the Bronx and many neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. People thronged the F.D.R. Drive viaduct and South Street Seaport, while the latecomers squeezed into the narrow streets between the Financial District's towers to try to catch vertical slivers of the display. All were enjoying the fireworks in a festive community-building event. Meanwhile, those towers, the perches with the greatest view of the fireworks — with the rare ability to see the fireworks at one's eye level — stood dark and quiet, save for the hum of air conditioning and the pacing of night watchmen patroling empty but magnificent lobbies.

Funny how this city works. Inner-city folk of modest means come to the city's money-making core to enjoy a fireworks display, while those who work there every day, who would have a better view of the fireworks, avoid them. Instead they take in smaller displays in Westchester County, Connecticut's Gold Coast, the North Shore, or financially blessed swaths of Jersey. Or we flee the metropolitan area altogether and go to the Hamptons, the Vineyard, or summer towns further away. (I say "we" because, in the interest of full disclosure, I did exactly this before returning for the fireworks last night.)

I suppose it makes sense, though. Who wants to be in one's office on a holiday?
- Posted at 4:54 PM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |  

One Cheer for the Minivan Taxi

Judging from the bicyclists' comments on the previous post, it seems that minivans are preferable over the city's sedan taxis, but not by much. Here is a handy summary of the results:

Door engineeringminivan
Engine size vs. vehicle sizeminivan
Gas mileage/air emissionsminivan
Outward appearance
Sound emitted by horn
Usefulness for the disabledminivan

There you have it. Let's hear it for progress … and, um, minivans.

- Posted at 3:05 PM | Permalink | Comments: 5 | Post a Comment |  

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