Saturday, August 06, 2011

Climate Change and better Social Equality--Comment on "Spirit Level"

In March, I read Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's The Spirit Level , Why Greater Equality makes Stronger Societies.   It is a marvelous book, presenting what I thought was very correct thinking on a broad social issue of the greatest importance.   It contains some discussion of climate change policy, however, that was not adequate, I thought, to the similar gravity and importance of the global warming danger.     I wrote this letter to the authors, who did not, at least to date, reply.

Dear Professors Wilkinson and Pickett,
                Have just read your "Spirit Level" (U.S. edition, as of 1/2011) with the greatest admiration, and entire support for your call for movement toward more equal, more social and more trusting societies, starting with ours in the United States.  But your perceptive presentation would be strengthened by reconsidering the section on climate change (p. 215 ff.) 
                 This chapter title explicitly links equality and sustainability, and the closing sentence of the opening section says, "...governments may be unable to make big enough cuts in carbon emissions without also reducing inequality."   Unfortunately this is not true--it is quite possible to end carbon emissions from coal, petroleum and natural gas by replacing them as energy sources with nuclear and renewable energy and with energy efficiency, regardless of the degree of equality in a society.  For entirely different reasons, but with no reference to social equality at all, France achieved close to this for electricity production in the 1970s, to give one example.   Secondly, this statement links carbon emission elimination with the broader, and entirely meritorious social equality agenda in a way which will tend to retard urgently needed action against carbon.  
                The text shows little feel for the quite particular structure of the climate protection issue.   Although you give due weight to its gravity, you lump curbing fossil carbon emissions in with the broader subjects of energy in general, sustainability and an overall respect for the environment.   It is doubtless true that more equal societies, less committed to competitive material consumption, would consume energy less gluttonously and would treat the environment better.  However, global warming damage to the climate from the use of fossil carbon energy, although it is massive and likely of greater long range importance than other forms of environmental abuse put together, is a separate and discrete matter. 
                Advancing to modern societies that are more equal and cooperative is both a deeply historical and deeply political issue, but climate change is not like that.   It is authentically new and sui generis, and has its own structure (which follows from the way carbon dioxide performs in the atmosphere), quite different from traditional issues.  In the United States, the right is tragically and abusively turning climate protection into a left-right political issue, but it is of the greatest importance that the left not cater to this by acting reciprocally.  This is not a matter of whether a family follows the best socialist or the worst capitalist principles, but rather whether it responds to the fact that its house is burning down.    
                Greenhouse damage is caused not by the use, extravagant or otherwise, of energy, but by the use of specifically fossil energy, a distinction which should not be lost from sight, although much energy today is still fossil energy.   Climate protection depends on ending the use of fossil energy,  and the core way to do this is to replace it with renewable and nuclear energy.   Energy conservation and efficiency have important roles to play in going off fossil energy, but it is only cutting the emission of CO2 that counts for climate change.   
                Technical means to replace fossil energy are available, and more and better ones are coming from researchers.   Since the share of electricity in overall energy consumption is steadily rising, a main focus is rightly on the generation of electricity, where and wind, solar and nuclear power (cf.   Sweden, Japan and California) are making major inroads, along with the high-capacity and intelligent transmission grids which will be necessary.   A summing of numerous local schemes, or a concentration of resources on a few massive ones, such as solar power from the Sahara, both remain possibilities to generate the requisite large volumes of non-fossil energy for existing uses, and early future one such as electricity to replace petroleum in the transportation sector (which includes the doomed Chelsea tractors!)
                Creating  a large non-fossil energy production capacity will be an expensive investment (though not overwhelming -- say, for the United States on the scale of one war like Iraq).  A moderate rise in energy costs will be necessary during the investment period, although it will be reducible for families and firms by energy efficiency and conservation steps.   But in the longer range, after the durable capital machinery has been put into place, marginal energy costs will drop since the sun and wind as energy sources are free and reactor fuel is a small component of nuclear power. 
                Although those working in the energy sector will have to innovate and exert themselves strenuously, during and after the conversion to non-fossil energy it is quite likely that there will be few if any perceptible changes in the daily life of ordinary people.  Driving a hybrid car is effectively identical to driving a gasoline one, and the same will be true of full-electric automobiles, which should quickly replace petrol powered ones.
                Climate change is an immediate and very grave threat for the human race and the habitability of the earth, but the danger arose from the application of industrial technology, and technical fixes are available for it.  The remedy cannot be applied too quickly--the nature of the problem, with carbon continuing to accumulate in the atmosphere and remaining there for long durations, means that time is of the essence.   Disseminating sufficient understanding of the problem in the general public/political circles to secure the necessary carbon taxation or other funding and to apply the large tech fix is proving difficult enough--in fact, desperately difficult.  Therefore, it is of the greatest importance that climate protection not be linked and made hostage to other issues no matter how meritorious, especially not broader social and cultural restructurings, inevitably slow, which would have the effect of delaying the technical and investment measures which are necessary to deal with global warming.  
                I hope that you will reconsider your coverage of this subject in your excellent book, perhaps consulting specialists in the matter.
                Sincerely yours,

              Peter Lydon

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Sending Condensed Centered Bay Area paper to Regional Officials--Cover Letter

Ken Kirkey,  Planning Director, Association of Bay Area Governments
Lisa Klein,  Planner,  Metropolitan Transportation Commission

Dear Mr. Kirkey and Ms. Klein,

               For twenty years or more, many leaders of the Bay Area have struggled to turn our region toward a coherent pattern of growth to succeed 20th century sprawl.   
After many  years of effort, we are now seeing the MTC, Air Board, BCDC and ABAG moving into better consultation, as California in SB 375 calls on the region to act effectively for sustainability and against climate change.   The creation of the Joint Policy Committee several years ago, and current work on the RTP/SCS (Bay Area Plan), are clearly landmarks in this movement toward cooperation.
I would like to suggest an addition to the Place Types of the Station Area Planning Model in the excellent Initial Vision Scenario, which you presented on March 11.
The present list of Place Types at this early stage does not seem to go much beyond a rather unspecified intensification of housing and worksites at existing nodes.   There should be added to the list of Place Types a new kind of intensification to be designed expressly to optimize transit-oriented living and working.   Less dominated by existing city forms on the ground, this additional place type, a full-fledged walking transit oriented community, tries instead to work out an optimum modern settlement for business and housing on the Bay Area’s existing rail network.   It would directly advance the SB 375 goals to house expected new population within the region and to reduce carbon emissions.   By purposefully lowering automobile reliance, it will make other environmental gains as well, and bring down our excessive costs of housing.
Attached is a six page paper on the concept of such a walking transit oriented community, or “Center.”    I am working on a longer version in short book form which I hope to finish in the Spring, but am sending this to you now, since the RTP/SCS policy process is developing momentum. 
It would be useful to include one or two examples of such Centers in the coming  RTP/SCS as prototypes to test their long-term utility to the region and acceptability to the market.   Support for such a center can be seen as an expansion of the MTC’s TLC program.  It will reflect the Commission's and the region’s realization that it is mainly through land use improvement, not direct transportation investment, that regional vehicle miles traveled (VMT) can be reduced. 

Peter Lydon
Berkeley, California, 94708

Condensed Version of CBA sent to Bay Area Regional Officials 3/25/2011

Centers" for the San Francisco Bay Area
Walking Transit Oriented Communities

       The Bay Area is a thriving metropolitan region, the fourth largest in the United States--and growing. How will it handle its growth? Where will its next million people live?
       New households now settle mainly on the region's outer rim in single-family houses and townhouses linked by freeways to the region's more central Bayside areas, where older settlement and jobs are concentrated. Land and houses are less expensive on the edge than closer to the center, but living at a distance means long commutes, usually by single-occupant car. Over months and years, such dispersion and commuting add up to great expense, not only in money from family budgets, but in many hours of time spent driving, and in gasoline, which becomes CO2 and other pollution. In the end, the "sprawl" style of life is extremely expensive -- AAA says owning a car costs very close to $10,000 a year, and in most of the Bay it Area is a requirement, not a choice. Month after month, long-distance commuters are spending money and energy, and especially time, in driving which most of them would rather use better, for example, for family life, education, sports, health or culture.
Escaping Sprawl, a New Pattern
       This paper advocates a different pattern of development, based on living where we can walk to many of our destinations, and where we can use collective instead of individual transportation for most longer trips, especially the commuting trip. The solution is for the region's core cities to build their new housing for growth closer to public transportation--in transit oriented development (TOD). The Bay Area has a remarkable set of existing transit rail lines, and, after years of regional debate, is now embarked in this direction under efforts such as One Bay Area and the Bay Area Plan, whose Initial Vision Scenario has just come out.
       But TOD comes in many varieties and intensities, with corresponding gradations and thresholds in the benefits that different levels of TOD bring. The full benefits of TOD come at its most intense level, when the concept of TOD is carried to its full extent. Such settlements are expressly designed and built to be economical and safe places to live for adults and children, framing and encouraging a full range of their personal and social activities. Internal destinations should be walkable, and green and open space for sports and recreation, and for being outdoors in California's great climate, should be abundant and very nearby for everyone. From its transit linkage and its density, such full walking TOD can offer metropolitan urban access and efficiency, and from its careful, thorough design come the open space and sense of community that people traditionally seek in the suburbs.
       In "walking TOD," people live close enough to their transit connection and to most of their local activities that they walk or bike, rather than drive, to them. Everyday local foot movement is made easy, safe and attractive for children and adults by putting cars underground and creating a lively social environment of stores, civic buildings and abundant green open space as well as housing. Motherhood no longer means chauffeurdom. A transit station serving a walking TOD opens into an active public square surrounded by civic buildings, stores, cafes and homes, not parking structures and big parking lots. In such full TOD, or"walking transit oriented community," the long-term cost-benefit ratios become the most favorable--very favorable indeed.
       Here we call a walking transit oriented community simply a Center. If many Centers were constructed, we could speak of a Centered Bay Area; a network of such Centers would strengthen the transit system and each other.
       A Center will be of substantial size because it should be capacious to hold all sorts of people, many with their job sites, and to mix them as much as they wish to mix in community life. It is not a niche development for a subset of the population, such as just the rich, just the poor, or just the old. Rather it is the framework for complex lively community of, say, 10,000 people which will have a lot going on. Walking distance from the outer edge to the transit stop (either underground or elevated) in the middle of the Center's "downtown" will be about 10 minutes (2,000 feet, a little less than half a mile) with perhaps some biking.
        A circle with a radius of 2,000 feet around a station gives an area of about 12 million square feet, or 288 acres. But, if we house that population in the one-and-two story dwellings that are traditional in American suburbs, we basically cover all the area, with little room for open space.
       The best response is to move away from the middle-class cultural norm of a detached single family house for all households and look instead to spacious, well equipped, owned apartments (either condominiums or coops). The ground gained from placing residences one above another becomes green open space, and this is the main reason for using mid-rise and high-rise buildings. But it is also true that a smaller part of the population than in the past now lives in the nuclear-family-with-children group 
for which the traditional single-family house developed. Most of the apartment dwellers in a Center will be drawn from the three quarters of households which are not nuclear families with kids. As in Vancouver, two-story townhouses will be available for families with children, although many urban middle class families in the U.S. and Europe know that kids grow up fine in apartments that have as much interior space as a traditional single family house and have good access to green space nearby.
       Early Garden City designer Ebenezer Howard showed how to put density and open space together, using the very traditional and social form of the "street" (which becomes a pedestrian/ bicycle path rather than carrying cars) arranged in a "fingers of the hand" pattern around a full circle. This creates pie wedges of open space, which add up to about half of the Center's total area. Toward the narrow point of each wedge, this land will host small-scale outdoor uses such as community gardens, neighborhood swimming pools, tot lots and basketball and tennis courts. It will serve larger uses, such as soccer fields, baseball diamonds and groves of trees in the wider outer portions. Although people live and move conveniently and sociably along the pedestrian "street" which leads to the transit hub, everyone is also a few steps from uncrowded open green space, which becomes the kids' expansive backyard.
       Automobile roads and parking are put entirely underground, although not necessarily immediately, since excavation is expensive. This means that the Center's entire surface is free of the noise and danger of car and truck movement and also of the huge space encumbrance of parking. Emergency and service vehicles will use the surface pedestrian walkways, but rarely.
       Housing in a Center is generous, sustainable, and of high quality, but it is a serious goal to keep its cost down. Although town-houses will be mixed in along the pedestrian "spokes of the wheel", a key building block of the Center is the mid-rise or high-rise structure. It is mainly residential, but often also has a couple of floors of "mixed use" (stores and offices) at its base. This building is a major challenge for 
the architects. It is seen in this paper as a "slender tower," as pioneered by Hong Kong and Vancouver, which eliminates two drawbacks of most urban multi-story buildings: daylight that comes only from one side of an apartment, and a dismal double-loaded corridor on each floor. With a floor plate of 80' by 80', and envisaged here in two versions, of 13 and 26 residential stories respectively, the building aspires to be both "solid" in its feel, and light in its construction, using the newest materials and construction technologies available -- or now in development.
       Apartment ceilings should be high, floor space generous, and living areas full of daylight. Careful attention will be given to acoustic protection of dwelling space. It could be possible to pre-fabricate, on-site or off-site, intensely designed floor panels of lightweight concrete or other new material. These plates, fitting into a steel or reinforced concrete frame, would form the floors of the apartments above them and the ceilings of those below, while carrying water, radiant heating/ cooling, and electricity conduits, serving both upwards and downwards. Every possible energy efficiency (especially for fossil energy) should be exploited--for example, HVAC based on heat pumps, ending the need for fossil natural gas supply. A further example: in the mild climate of California: piping for radiant heating/cooling need not extend to the edges of the floor plate but could serve only an inner core for our infrequent cold evenings and very hot days. The goal is to offer spacious apartment homes for a construction cost as close to $250 per square foot as possible. To keep down initial capital costs, apartments could be sold in a loft-like unfinished state, for residents to create their interiors over time at their convenience.
Costs and financing
       Purposeful cost minimization includes the substantial "soft costs" of such a project. Common goals and cooperation between the developer and the local municipality is essential. Thereafter, there are efficiencies in end-user financing methods, such as an initial rental period of hire-purchase when a household first moved in. A regular extra payment above the normal rent, which a family could consider to be its savings program, could accumulate into an equity stake in their dwelling unit, enabling the household after a little time to be considered owners, not renters, and a regular mortgage to come into force.
Savings and Sustainability
       The Center's walking proximity to schools and stores, and to transit to the wider region, should allow a household to own only one car, or even none, in place of the typical two or more cars when living in sprawl. The saved expense of not running a car over a generation would come close to paying off the condominium' s mortgage. The family's residence would then be owned free and clear, becoming capital accumulated for the next generation of the family, and a major step into the middle class. This transformative gain is far more than what is left after owning a series of rapidly depreciating second family vehicles over thirty years. It offers an insight into the costs of sprawl, and the social and economic gains for a household that avoids them.
       The Center's garage is ideal for a car share program, serving enough people that the service could be of high reliability and offer a variety of cars. In particular, availability in the Center of long-range hybrids through the car share pool would let Center residents own pure electric vehicles for their local auto trips, reducing both fuel costs and emissions.
The public interest, and an analogous example
       The good walking access to high-intensity transit and to local services is basic, but the various features of a Center interlock, and ideally one should be built as a whole. It is a very large whole -- a multi-million dollar investment that the traditional housing sector, with its municipal planning and zoning side, as well as its finance-dominated market side, would not easily underwrite in the near future.
       A Center will bring major long-term savings in money (as well as time and energy) for its residents through its greatly reduced car use and its compactness. However, some of its important elements, such as the multi-story form of construction and underground parking and vehicle circulation, are indubitably expensive in initial capital. If the hard and soft costs of housing in a Center can be kept to a total of $400 per square foot, a 1,200 sq ft apartment will cost about $500,000. This is a reasonably affordable family dwelling in relation to the Bay Area housing market, especially in view of the transportation savings it permits. But it does not count the undergrounding of parking and roadways, which is capital-intensive. The excavation required to handle Car Share and private vehicles for residents, and trucks supplying Center stores, and also the cars of outside users of the BART station, will be extensive, but the normal BART insistence on above-ground parking structures near its stations ruins TOD sites. Costly undergrounding of these common facilities is essential for a full walking TOD, but may necessitate some form of public subsidy or loan guarantee.
       As part of California's AB 32 drive against climate change and carbon emissions, the Bay Area's regional agencies have made commitments to the State of California under SB 375 to plan to reduce CO2 emissions from cars and light duty trucks by 7% per capita by 2020, and 15% per capita by 2035. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) also now officially aims to reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per capita in the same period, in place of the normal rise in VMT. Both these interrelated goals require more use of public electric transportation, such as BART, and soon Caltrain, and reductions in the overwhelming present use of cars and light trucks. But the MTC has learned that by far the most important and effective way to increase transit's mode share is to increase housing and jobsites near transit services. For this reason, the MTC's mission shifts away from transportation investments, toward also influencing land use policies and decisions within the region.
       Land use policy-making is traditionally under the control of local cities rather than regional bodies. Bay Area-wide organizations, such as the MTC, have only recently begun to try to influence local land use decisions toward the density that supports public transportation. Leapfrogging the present gradualism and building one or more full walking transit oriented communities, or Centers, as demonstration prototypes, would be directly effective for the region in meeting its climate protection and sustainability targets under SB 375, and is therefore a proper candidate for regional public investment.
        In the early 1960's, the Federal Aviation Administration attacked the problem of long walking distances inside airports by commissioning renowned architect Eero Saarinen to develop an alternative prototype at Dulles Airport near Washington D.C. Saarinen's compact but strikingly beautiful structure in glass and concrete used special buses, known as "mobile lounges," to move passengers out to their planes. It did cut internal distances, and was efficient for the passengers. Although eventually not followed by other airports, the project was a perceptive and constructive public investment in innovation.
       Thinking about these administrative and legal considerations, but, more importantly, thinking about the great daily expense, unsustainability and climate damage of America's sprawling metropolitan cities, it is clear that support for a prototype Center in the Bay Area would be a merited intervention by a higher level of administration, such as the full metropolitan region, the State of California, or the Federal government.