May 2009



Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live in a place that was designed in recent times for a life without cars? If you went to the German community of Vauban outside of Freiburg you could see one. The New York Times caught my attention with the headline “In German Suburb, Life Goes On Without Cars.” This is misleading to my American sensibilities. When I think of a “suburb” I unfortunately don’t think of a community of 5,500 living two and a half miles from the center of the larger city. Two and half miles is a short distance by American standards. That’s how far Jake and I live from one another. My point is just that the scale is very different and a European suburb is not the same thing as an American suburb, again, unfortunately. I say unfortunately because I think it would be nice to be able to get around town without having to go very far to get anywhere. That tends to make walking and bicycling easier. 


Whose cars are those???

Whose cars are those???

Walking and bicycling become a lot easier when on street parking, driveways, and home garages are generally prohibited. When you make those common bits of infrastructure  prohibited and you charge $40,000 for a parking space in a garage on the edge of town, you end up living in a place where seventy percent of the population doesn’t own a car. They also don’t allow free standing homes. Only row-houses. 


 Some folks in California are going to give this a shot. They’re trying to set up a development called Quarry Village in Hayward near Oakland is going to try to be car free. But if they fail to get the support to be car free, they have plans on making it a normal car-centric development. I wonder just how much effort they’ll put into getting the support to make it car free. 


 Apparently in the US most zoning laws require two parking spaces per residence. Damn, that kind of a statistic makes me want to move straight to Houston where they don’t have any zoning laws, except that it’s Houston and has managed to sprawl across the Southeastern Texas despite its lack of zoning laws to confound planners. I would think that zoning laws like the parking requirement shouldn’t be too tough to wave seeing as there are far from two parking spaces for every residence in my apartment building which was built within the last five years. That said, I know parking has been a contentious issue in downtown Olympia in recent years, but I digress…


 To offset the high price of owning a car in Vauban the community has its own car-sharing club, like Zipcar. Another alternative that some residents have chosen is for multiple families to buy a car together. I don’t know how well that would work in Germany, but I imagine that in the United States that would require a pretty fancy contract to legally protect all parties involved. I definitely see a place for car-sharing in Thurston County. Of course, I would rather see it develop as a home-grown endeavor than having the corporate giant of Zipcar take over the community. They’ve ignored us thus far, let’s do it on our own. If the bureaucracy of operating businesses through public colleges and universities wasn’t so overwhelming, I would suggest Evergreen start its own car sharing club for the South Sound. Who knows, maybe someone with tremendous amounts of motivation will read this and become inspired. I’m certain that many college students would not bring their cars to Olympia if they knew they would have access to a vehicle while they lived here. How else could Zipcar become so successful at college campuses across the country? I could also imagine the State having its own fleet to be able to get the government workers from the main Capitol campus to the other offices spread around Olympia, Lacey, and Tumwater. 


 In Vauban the lack of cars has another benefit: parents feel much better about raising their children in the pedestrian and bicycle friendly environment. The fear of a child running into the street must be almost non-existant. The other advantage Vauban has for the carless crowd is a Freiburg tram line running along the edge of the development. 


 I’d like to close with a quote from a Vauban resident named Ms. Walter. “If you have a car, you tend to use it.” To which I will respond, “if you don’t have a car, you won’t drive it.”


Oh boy, I don’t know if this is such a wise idea, but here I go reading about a proposed tax structure. Grace Crunican, who is the Director of the Seattle Department of Transportation, proposed recently that King, Snohomish, and Pierce Counties enact a pilot project to try out taxing drivers by the mile, also known as a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) tax. A pilot project was in place in Oregon four years ago. According to the report about the project released late in 2007, a VMT tax is “viable.”

Apparently in order for the VMT tax to work each car needs to have a GPS transponder that would communicate with gas pumps and automatically add the tax to the cost of the fuel. This raises the question: what’s wrong with a fuel tax? The problem with a fuel tax is that it doesn’t get enough money from all drivers. So the lady driving the ’73 Plymouth Barracuda is paying a lot more to use the road than the guy putzing around in his Honda Insight, or worse, his Tesla Roadster

On the one hand, a gas tax encourages us to use less gas and use more fuel efficient forms of transportation. On the other hand, if too many of us are using fuel efficient forms of transportation, we won’t be able to maintain our roads. What to do?! By the way, in Washington State there is $80 billion in unfunded transportation projects.

My first inclination is to jack up the gas tax dramatically. That way you’re still encouraging people to drive more efficient cars. If that doesn’t work, I see three options: raise taxes somewhere else, charge tolls, or decommission roads. Bryn Davidson argues that we don’t need to build any more roads. Maybe we can get rid of some of the more expensive ones to maintain?

The most fashionable way to raise road taxes these days seems to be through congestion pricing. That can involve either entering a zone (downtown) and having to pay for a day of being able to drive into that zone or paying to be able to use lanes on the highway during rush hour. 

Apparently tolls are coming back to Washington, but so far just to bridges and not to major roads. In general I oppose tolls because I’m not used to them and they seem annoying. I would rather pay for the use of a bridge through taxes than scramble to find five dollars as I approach the toll booth. 

David Dye, who is the deputy secretary of the Washington Department of Transportation objects to the VMT tax, claiming Washingtonians aren’t ready to pay for roads. I find this infuriating as we already pay for roads through the gas tax. I really wish that it were possible to close roads when people vote against raising taxes. If that were possible, the folks who insist they don’t need to pay more taxes to the state could lose the benefits those taxes create. Too bad roads are a god-given right. 

The Mossback (aka Knute Berger) argues in Is Cascadia’s Train Coming In? That a high speed rail connection from Eugene, Oregon to Vancouver, BC would help unify the Cascadian region. He argues that such a train would be advantageous for both the environmentalist Cascadian boosters and the business minded ones. A high speed rail line would serve the business class that currently might hop on a plane to get between Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver. Or, more importantly, it would serve a business class that currently does not travel between states and across the international border. 

Mostly the Mossback focuses on getting more communication happening with Canada. He points out that most Americans couldn’t name the prime minister of Canada (Stephen Harper) and that for Seattleites, BC is known either as being a vacation spot or for its weed. 

That’s fine, but has little to do with Thurston County. I like to think about all those lobbyists (both good and bad) who make their way down I-5 to Olympia from Seattle daily during the legislative session. Obviously a high speed rail connection would be advantageous for them. And then there are those who arrive in fancy little private jets.  They probably can’t be convinced of switching to a train even if it is a very fast one. Fortunately I don’t see too many of those jets flying overhead on their way to the Olympia airport. The train could also be useful for the legislators themselves, and their staff. We could have our own version of a Joe Biden who comes to work each day by train. 

Who else would ride this train? I have had fellow students in in my programs at Evergreen who commute daily from Seattle, but I imagine a high speed train would probably be too expensive for that use unless there were substantial discounts. But then it could be useful for students going to conferences in Eugene, Portland, Seattle, or Vancouver. Although I often forget about them, there could be plenty of business travel to places like Everett or Vancouver, Washington that currently just mucks us I-5. I wonder how much travel there is between state capitals…

A goal in Thurston County is to provide jobs and housing here so that people aren’t commuting here from outside the county or leaving the county to jobs elsewhere. The goal is not to be Seattle or Tacoma’s bedroom community. We’re supposed to be able to stand on our own two feet. And yet, the guilt of failing to stand on our own two feet might be lessened if people were coming and going by electrified high speed rail rather than petroleum powered internal combustion engines. As far as I can tell, electrically powered trains really do make a lot of sense here in Cascadia because of all our hydroelectric dams. Now if the citizens decided to take out those dams, there would be problems, but I think that’s a can of worms for another day.  

There is something that I hope such a massive investment in infrastructure could remedy: the location of Thurston County’s one and only passenger depot. Currently the station is somewhere south of Lacey out in the countryside. If new tracks were to by placed, I would hope they could be placed closer to the developed sections of Olympia or Lacey. If my memory serves me correctly, in the original plans for the Capitol campus there was going to be a train station beneath the Temple of Justice on Capitol Lake. How nice that would be!

Vancouver, BC has been hard at work improving its bicycling infrastructure to encourage more bicyclists. Their efforts have included completing the Carrall Street Greenway, a short trail that connects False Creek with Burrard Inlet. At first I thought this seemed like a rather minor accomplishment. Then I realized that it completed the loop created by the Seaside Greenway that encircles much of downtown and includes Stanley Park’s famous seawall trail. Then I looked at the city’s website only to discover a fantastic web of Greenways built, under construction, or planned across the city of Vancouver. When completed there will be sixteen routes totaling eighty-seven miles, many of which would be classified as Class I bike paths in Thurston County. 

I love the fact that Thurston County has the Chehalis Western, Woodland, and Yelm-Tenino trails but I don’t understand why there aren’t plans for more greenways other than the Gate-Belmore Trail, especially considering how much more affordable bicycle trails are than building new roads. But really, the most important greenways are those that connect the urban areas. We need to have Olympia, Lacey, and Tumwater connected in a much more bike-friendly manner. Thank god we have the wonderful bicycling map we have. 

Another advantage that Vancouverites have that we don’t down here in Thurston County are those new-fangled cyclist signal buttons at busy intersections. How nice would it be for novice riders not to feel like they have to play chicken with the rest of traffic because the traffic signals are too archaic to detect their chosen mode of transportation? “All you Suburbans, Hummers, and Priuses! STOP! It is my turn to make my way safely through this intersection!” I would love to feel like I had the power of the law on my side to let me pass through a busy intersection. Of course this requires us to assume that no one has any intention of building a safe and serene greenway nearby.

In 2005 the city of Vancouver set for itself the lofty goal of having 10% of its citizenry commuting by bicycle in 2010. With a year to go, they only have 3.7% of the city commuting by bicycle. But this makes me wonder how many people are commuting on foot. With all those skinny condo towers in downtown Vancouver I would think they would have a decently high percentage of the town walking to work, but I’m probably mistaken. That said, in four neighborhoods (Point Grey, Kitsilano, South Cambie, and Grandview-Woodlands) 11% of their residents are currently commuting to work by bicycle, so that’s pretty cool. As of 2005 just 2.1% of Thurston County commuted to work by bicycle while 1.9% commuted on foot. I pray that those numbers have risen in the last three years, because that’s pitiful, especially when only 4.0% took the bus. 

Interestingly, during Vancouver’s Bike to Work Week last year 3% of the participants had 60 kilometer (37 mile) roundtrip commutes. What would that mean in Thurston County? That would mean commuting from Bucoda to the State Capital (37.4 miles, roundtrip), Yelm to the State Capital (31 miles, roundtrip), or Rainier to Rochester (41.2 miles, roundtrip). What a wild world we would live in if people were making those commutes here. But then, maybe they are and I just don’t have the relevant information. 

The last thing I want to mention is the last thing they mentioned in the article: there is safety in numbers! The more people ride, the more people will ride. I suppose that was an ideal of Critical Mass, once upon a time. If more than 2.1% of Thurston County would get out on a bicycle to commute, people would stop looking at it as a fringe/hippie habit. People wouldn’t have to be afraid of riding alone, in isolation. They could feel that communal spirit of participating in something. Sadly, this must be why they all hop behind the wheel: there are so many other people doing it, they get to participate in that great community of commuters, but in a most destructive manner.

Spending money on road improvements for safety concerns is something hard to argue with. An unsafe road is an unsafe neighborhood. I’m glad to see that the widened section of Harrison will get bike and walking lanes, rather than just improving the road for cars. I have concerns about paying for the project based on future projects, as it seems a bit risky in this economy due to the lack of new construction.

It is interesting to note that bringing “economic stimulus” is almost a surefire way to get a project green-lighted. But what type of stimulus will really be created by these road improvements? Jobs will be created for the workers, materials and capital will be bought and used for the project, but what about the community where the improvements are being built? Roads are not real wealth generating projects, as they serve to move people to and from a location rather than bringing an improvement to the neighborhood.

I understand these projects as something that need to be done, albeit regrettably. Within the current system, roads must be maintained for safety reasons, even if the money could be placed somewhere else for a better long-term transportation project.

The news of tougher fuel standards is good news as it is an important step in making cars somewhat cleaner machines. As I am an advocate for moving away from the domination by the automobile, this does make a (slight) difference in the car’s impact. This is a holding action, one that helps to stop a small part of the pollution now (or at least in 2016) rather than continue at pollution levels that do more damage. But I do not see this news as a real victory. All this means is that the cars we drive will use a little less fuel. Cars in other developed nations will still have higher standards, their gas will still not be as heavily subsidized as ours and they will still spend more on mass transit than we will. This new requirement will do nothing for ending our dependency on the automobile. It will give no incentive to step out of the car, and may actually encourage more driving, as people will get more bang for their buck.

This requirement is an example of environmentalism through consumerism, where an existing lifestyle and product is altered to keep it intact as a viable option rather than working towards a new way of living. Don’t create a National Transportation Policy focused on mass transit and reduction of trips, work towards saving gas so that driving can remain the primary transportation option! That’s change I can believe in!

Well, I suppose it’s good in a way, that the last experiment ended when it did because my mom and little brother came to visit today. I just couldn’t imagine serving them the same food I had been eating. They deserve better. We went out to eat at the New Moon Cafe. I kept it local by eating a Northwest Omelette which had cream cheese, spinach and smoked salmon in it. But I was craving something a little more exotic so I added avocado. I wonder what the chances are the avocado came from California instead of Mexico. On the side I got some impossibly fresh fruit (oranges, melons, etc.) and a biscuit. To wash it all down there was coffee. 

I suppose this is the point at which I acknowledge that a closed loop food system is one thing, but there will always be some foods worth importing. The question becomes, what foods are worth importing and how should they be transported? I would hope it would be obvious that we should not be importing foods that can be grown locally. Screw interstate commerce! Southern raised chickens should not be allowed to be sold in the Pacific Northwest! Spices I think should be the obvious other end of the spectrum in that they offer lots of flavor for a small weight and they travel well. Generally speaking, I think the item being shipped should be processed so that it can survive the travel. Like rum or peanut butter. 

This experiment has also made me wonder why there aren’t more greenhouses around here. Can’t you grow almost anything in a greenhouse? I know there are tons of greenhouses in the Fraser Valley in British Columbia where they grow tomatoes year round. I have read that Amory Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute and Hypercar fame grows bananas in Colorado. If I had a greenhouse I would grow fruit earlier and later, but probably nothing very exotic. 

By now, many people have read the article about how sheep raised in England have a high carbon footprint than sheep raised in New Zealand and shipped to England. Here is a response to that article that suggests what appears to be too good to be true might just be too good to be true. Michael Shuman attempts to unfold the question of local vs. global a little further. It should be clear that the original article is not an excuse to buy meat and produce from far away but that it is a call to arms to work toward making our local systems as clean and efficient as possible. 


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This evening I bartended a Marine wedding at the beautiful Thornwood Castle in Lakewood. That’s where I had my meal of chicken, ham, potatoes, and Caesar salad. I really should find out where the catering company gets their food. I can find that out the next time I work. I’m also curious where we send the food scraps when they get composted. I am really frustrated that composting is not available at my apartment. It feels very strange to sort food scraps from other garbage at work and then try to be conscious at home, only to toss food into the garbage.

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