Diseases of affluence cured by…

removing affluence, of course. Or, put another way, saving money can sometimes save lives.

Population-wide interventions (in this case severe austerity) reduced chronic disease burden in the very unique case of Cuba’s “special period,” an economic catastrophe that struck a society that is peculiarly undemocratic, resilient, and underpinned by strong public health resources (and thus has excellent data). From Richard Schiffman in The Atlantic, summarizing an article by Manuel Franco, Usama Bilal, et al in BMJ:

that the health of Cubans actually improved dramatically during the years of austerity… based on nationwide statistics from the Cuban Ministry of Public Health, together with surveys conducted with about 6,000 participants in the city of Cienfuegos, on the southern coast of Cuba, between 1991 and 2011. The data showed that, during the period of the economic crisis, deaths from cardiovascular disease and adult-onset type 2 diabetes fell by a third and a half, respectively. Strokes declined more modestly, and overall mortality rates went down… The Cuban experience suggests that to seriously make a dent in these problems, we’ll have to change the lifestyle that helps to cause them. The study’s authors recommend “educational efforts, redesign of built environments to promote physical activity, changes in food systems, restrictions on aggressive promotion of unhealthy drinks and foods to children, and economic strategies such as taxation.” […] If the United States want to stem the rise of diabetes and heart disease, either we get serious about finding ways for to become more physically active and to eat fewer empty calories — or we wait for economic collapse to do that work for us.

The authors (and I) do not condone replicating the Special Period crisis, but as a data-collection exercise it is unique in providing a look at the effects of unprecedented, population-scale, sudden change in both diet and exercise. The primary cause of removing fossil energy had a secondary effect of removing food energy from the economic system, as well, and increasing its expenditure to make up for the lost fossil fuel. The accompanying video (at the BMJ site) has interesting graphs of how the entire population’s BMI shifted both during and after the Special Period.

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Transit shorts: Sustainable DC, CaBi, Beltway as urban edge, more!




Weekday walk trip % Originally uploaded by Payton Chung

Hi there! Seven (!) transportation-ish shorts; they might be a few days late, but I kind of have breaking news for #1, since these figures haven’t yet made the paper:

1. The new Sustainable DC Vision includes (unlike some other plans I’ve seen) some really great performance goals for the next 20 years, including:
– 75% of trips starting within city will be on foot, bike, or transit
– Zero waste
– 50% cut in greenhouse gas emissions (3/4 of which come from buildings)
– 100% swimmable, fishable waterways
– Tripling the number of small businesses
– 25% of food supply from within 100 miles (which implies farmland conservation in the suburbs)
– 50% less obesity (already lowest rate in USA)
– 50% less unemployment
– 10X greater exports of goods & services

Several notable strategies are called out, including “citywide performance parking districts” (their term for market-rate parking meters). There’s also an interesting emphasis in the text on how local food, zero waste, etc. will keep more funds within DC.

I was walking behind Mayor Gray across the new Anacostia Riverwalk wetlands bridge that connects Hill East to the Capitol Riverfront; check back to see if those photos make it into the paper.

2. More on performance parking: ‘Even though he works for a personal rapid transport company [ULTRa], [Steve] Raney said, “If you’re doing to do one thing, do the paid parking. Don’t go and build a personal rapid transit system.” [Bill Fulton, CP-DR]

3. BicycleBug recently undertook a CaBiChallenge, similar to the Tour de [Denver] B-Cycle. Apparently, he couldn’t check into some stations due to being dock-blocked. Two ways around that:
– use two credit cards. Arrive at a full station with bike, use CC#2 to check out a bike, return bike paid for with CC#1 into newly empty dock.
– or, to just verify a station visit, you could just ride your own bike around and print off an unlock code from each station. (I guess that wouldn’t work if the printer’s down, though.)

4. The graph here comes from the MWCOG’s 2011 TPB Geographically-Focused Household Travel Survey initial report. (Logan Circle’s outlier-in-a-good-way results merited some press, e.g., in the Examiner.) If we define sprawl as “where nobody walks” and “where everybody drives alone,” it’s pretty clear that sprawl begins right outside the 257 square miles circumscribed by the 10-mile-ring Beltway. (Incidentally, the city of Chicago would fill 92% of the Beltway.)

There are exceptions that stem from good planning, though: Largo, with access to the Blue Line, had 63% more transit commuting trips than more-distant Reston, but better-planned Reston has 67% more walk trips — and 31% more total weekday walk/transit trips.

Another surprising fact hidden in the presentation: mobile-only households ranged from 12% around Largo to an astonishing 57% around Logan Circle (the very picture of a neighborhood of techy transients). I see that they’ll be doing my neighborhood later this year — hope I get selected!

5. More on escaping the Beltway: it turns out that just outside the Beltway is Cherry Hill Park, a bona fide campground (the sort of land use you don’t see in an urban area) — which you can take a city bus to! (Via Em Hall’s Metro Ventures, via a segment on WAMU Metro Connection)

6. I love public stairs. Chalk it up to too many years stalking broad, flat Chicago streets.

7. Last week, Streetsblog mentioned a curious list compiled by Patrick Kennedy from Walkable DFW that contrasted U.S. cities with many and few highway lane miles. It was just a simple illustration — the many-lane-miles cities aren’t what come to mind as thriving, lively cities, unlike the few-lane-miles cities — and there are a lot of factors that enter into the equation. (I noticed that the lists are dominated by certain states, like Texas, Florida, and California, which might be over- or under-investing in highways.)

Still, though, it reminded me of this cute paper (again, not really an analytical work) by Patrick Condon, contrasting how the urban health of Vancouver to St. Louis really has nothing to do with the presence — or absence — of highways.

The real meaning of Park(ing) Day




Park on Penn Originally uploaded by Payton Chung

Once again, the killjoys are looking too narrowly at a fun event. DC may have many acres of park space, but the vast majority of it is inaccessible to its residents on a daily basis — cut off from the city by highways, hillsides, rivers, and too often security fences. Unlike metered parking spaces, those park spaces aren’t located right at the heart of the neighborhoods where we work, shop, and live.

More broadly, Streetsblog DC calls Park(ing) Day a “global demonstration about all the ways we can use curbside space besides automobile storage.” It’s a chance to have a thoughtful dialogue about what else we could use curbside space for, and to get a chance to see just how huge cars are relative to the other elements of our urban environment. We don’t often get a chance to see just how much other stuff can fit into the space occupied by one car — a dozen bikes? a picnic table? a kindergarten class? a City Council?

San Francisco has made Park(ing) Day permanent in many locations throughout the city by allowing businesses (and residents!) to rent curbside spaces annually. Many of them have become elegant sidewalk cafes, some house bike parking, one has a curious dinosaur themed garden. All of them offer something rewarding and engaging to walk past, and many offer the city’s economy more of a boost than yet another parked car would.

It’s not as if street parking has always had the Divine Right of Kings, either. Way back in 1924, in a paper entitled Suggestions for Relief of Street Congestion, a Chicago engineer supported banning curbside parking entirely: “It seems unreasonable that a comparatively few people can utilize the most valuable street space in our cities, practically at will, for their own pleasure and convenience and to the serious inconvenience of thousands of their fellow citizens.” (Norton, Peter. 2008. Fighting Traffic. Cambridge: MIT. p. 141.)

[posted to GGW]

Crossing the line

Metro briefs for today. (Whew, am I sick of food trucks, although I appreciate Jef Nickerson for saying what’s on my mind: “I’m not saying Food Trucks should be banned, far from it. What I would like to see is, the city thinking about ways to encourage other forms of street food, be they micro-storefronts, push carts, Food Trucks, or something else.”)

1. Chris Leinberger tries to make nice with Joel Kotkin by pointing out that the latter is stuck in the old city vs. suburb dichotomy, hung up on municipal boundaries. This is still necessary that many years after David Rusk‘s “elastic cities” hypothesis? And for a writer based in the southwest, with its highly elastic cities? I’m more inclined to chalk it up to willful ignorance.

(Since I grew up in an “elastic” city with a regional school district, all of which consisted principally of low-density sprawl that overran and embedded a few country towns, I’ve always thought this distinction was a complete canard. Of course “auto-dependent sprawl” and “walkable urbanism” can both exist in either city, suburb, town, or country. Duh.)

2. Delhi is following Singapore and writing traffic tickets based on photo evidence of infractions posted to Facebook. I typically would support measures to improve the ubiquity of traffic law enforcement, particularly as regards public safety, but this raises serious concerns about due process. I wonder how much supporting evidence would be necessary to verify that such photos haven’t been doctored: untampered EXIF data? GPS tracks showing that the car was at that location?

3. “Chicago taxpayers [will] cry” over the $11 billion that the Morgan Stanley joint venture [JV] will make over the term of the parking meter lease, according to Bloomberg’s Darrell Preston. (The JV also admits that the amount it spent on new meters amounts to a mere $40M.) Interesting that the JV is issuing what amounts to parking-meter revenue bonds — except priced as corporate bonds, not as tax-exempt municipal debt. (I’ve been saying all this time that an easier and more cost-effective way to tap into the future revenue stream would be for the city to jack the rates and issue revenue bonds. The primary reason for not doing this is that it would add debt to the city’s books, thereby lowering its credit rating — and that the proceeds from municipal bonds are subject to greater City Council scrutiny under Illinois law than the proceeds from a PPP. Well, the city got a downgrade anyways.)

Meanwhile, of course, San Francisco — which pioneered parking meter revenue bonds back in 1994 — has just launched SFpark, its municipally run advanced market-pricing scheme. The startup costs are underwritten via a loan from the MPO, interestingly, to be paid back with the enhanced revenues. And guess what else? The city still retains the flexibility to do cool things with its public space, like curbside bike parking. Imagine that!

4. An interesting participation exercise from the Next American City, sponsored by IBM’s Smarter Cities ad campaign: The Next American City Challenge on Tumblr.

5. Speaking of Tumblr, TakeMeWithYou is a WPB Make Believe project that used the “community disposable camera” model of storytelling. This was suggested as one idea for our WPB plan outreach process; glad to see that it came up with some fun results.

6. Great article by Fred Mayer on the Twin Cities (and Madison) bike economy, which he estimates at over $300M in revenues annually. One might think that the bike industry should prove to have a particularly lucrative local multiplier effect: it’s relatively light on capital and heavy on labor, and generates positive local externalities — quite unlike driving, which sucks money out of other sectors of the economy and sends almost all of its capital costs out of the local economy.

7. Park51, or the Cordoba Initiative, is obviously a local zoning matter — and as such, national Republicans have zero say. Perhaps that’s why they’re fast falling into line to “stand against the Ground Zero mosque,” since it’s completely painless: it will undoubtedly happen, and they can look like they’re doing something (paying lip service to the insane base) without actually affecting any real change. Yet watching this is frightening: for government to step in and “stop” Park51 wouldn’t just prohibit the free exercise of religion (1st Amendment) but also deprive the rightful landowners their property (5th Amendment). That this self-described “Don’t Tread on Me” crowd can show off that much contempt for personal freedoms just makes it all the more obvious that such “freedoms” only apply to their selfish selves.

8. Tom Philpott over at Grist notes that even most rural farms, much less urban farms, don’t make money. It frustrates me that so many people are so hopelessly naïve about farming’s poor economics: after the U.S. has spent trillions of dollars paving over farmland because it’s uneconomical, suddenly now farming will be profitable enough to underwrite demolition and infrastructure work to undo it all? This goes double for architects who concoct schemes featuring purpose-built “vertical ag” megastructures for agriculture (the very definition of a “factory farm”), or those positing urban farms as the solution for just about everything urban-decline related.

For instance, last year’s Re-Burbia competition finalists included exactly two approaches that comprehensively evolving suburbs through individual initiative. The rest of the schemes were a collection of inflexible (and therefore inherently unsustainable) megastructures (the sort of megalomaniacal thinking that got us into this mess of cloverleafs, malls, and McMansions), one-off tech gizmo wonder panaceas, or land-use transformations that betray a complete misunderstanding of economics (farms and wetlands are great, but they just don’t pay the rent).

As Alex Steffen (via Allison Arieff in Good) points out (and as SF Streetsblog commenters echo), it’s a folly to think that any vacant land (even in stagnant cities) should automatically be best thought of as agriculture, particularly permanently; in many cases, such land could best enhance regional sustainability (and the regional economy) if used to enhance walkability instead with more housing, retail, or workplaces. The difference between zero and ten food miles is nothing like the difference between ten and 2,000. Eliminating the first 99.5% of the food miles is easy and necessary, so let’s not obsess over the last 0.4%.

(And really, this has nothing to do with the orchard. Honest: that necessarily has to be open space of some kind.)

9. “[C]limatologists have long theorized that in a warming world, the added heat would cause more record highs and fewer record lows. The statistics suggest that is exactly what is happening. In the United States these days, about two record highs are being set for every record low, telltale evidence that amid all the random variation of weather, the trend is toward a warmer climate.” Justin Gillis [NYT]

Less serious:

10. Oh, how I’ve giggled at the now-repaired-again Milshire Ho sign. (Backup photo.) For the longest time, I just assumed it read “Wilshire.”

11. Oh, and while we’re in Logan Square, my friends’ HGTV makeover aired in June. Check this page for when it’ll re-run.

12. Not metro at all, but a recent party joke was about a theme band called “Ayn Rand Sex Scene.” Given her newfound popularity…

Food trucks, elaborated

Responding to a challenge to my brief expression of puzzlement over why everyone’s suddenly infatuated with food trucks, to the point where some bloggers are gushing that they “can’t see the downside.” (Such expressions of skepticism have been met with exasperated astonishment, as if I’d attacked motherhood and apple pie. Geez, no. I haven’t even cancelled my Time Out subscription.)

First off, I’m not alone here. Plenty of people have already complained about food trucks causing pollution, unfair competition, and blocking parking or loading zones or no-standing fire lanes or crosswalks; this has been extensively covered by media in NYC [Brownstoner, Times, The L] and LA [LAist, Daily News, Daily Press, Times, YoVenice]. Even Mayor Bloomberg agrees [Daily News]: “The little [vendor] stand is now getting to be these enormous trucks with generators… We are moving stores into the street. And they sit there and they park and they take up parking places and they block traffic.” Placid PDX (where most food carts are in corrals on private land, bearing a striking resemblance to Singapore’s “hawker centres” or Hong Kong’s Cooked Food Centres) has seen battles, while DC has already enacted extensive regulations in advance of their arrival.

Second, my complaint isn’t about street food, or fast food, much less food (of course). It’s about trucks, which I’ve never loved. Food trucks, in particular, present a lot of external costs that threaten many great qualities about our urban retail districts: mixed uses, economic and social diversity, walkability, stability, fiscal sustainability, and livability. Street food existed for thousands of years before foam plates, diesel generators, and V8 engines.

I love street food, and adventurous stuff at that; I’ve spent weeks this year subsisting on the stuff: chestnuts in Guangzhou, durian shakes in Singapore, alfajores in Buenos Aires, currywurst in Vienna, scrapple in Philadelphia, lemonade in Glencoe. I’ve done more than most to advance local food in Chicago, as treasurer of its only food co-op, community gardener, champion of a public market in WPB and consistent advocate of its efforts to get food (particularly a coffee stand) and other vendors to enliven the Polish Triangle and Mautene Court, and even a supporter of an outdoor food market in my backyard. Immigrant street food entrepreneurship is even in my blood: my mother and her siblings used to sell Fall River chow mein sandwiches outdoors to lines of factory workers on no-meat Fridays.

Vendors in other cities pay ground rent to transit agencies (as in Vienna, where they’re at many tram stops) or public-market authorities (as in Hong Kong), which in turn pay for services that these businesses use, like trash pickup. These costs aren’t incidental; residents and businesses within the Wicker Park Bucktown SSA already spend $150,000 a year cleaning litter from its sidewalks, even without any food trucks — who will, because they don’t pay local property taxes, use those services and leave local taxpayers footing the bill. I’ve lived in the midst of really trendy neighborhoods like WPB for eight years now. I like having lots of shops and restaurants within walking distance, as long as they largely contain their noise and customers. Vendors with carts or booths or whatever already set up shop by the dozens outside my apartment, at a thronged weekly farmers’ market and with pushcarts selling elotes, ice cream, slushies, and fried dough every day. Food trucks with loud generators and littering crowds idling outside my window is not part of what I signed up for — Bloomberg’s quote above seems to indicate that he also sees the distinction — and noise and trash are not an integral part of city life. (You want more people living in cities? Make them pleasant to live in.) Call this a NIMBY reaction if you will — but recognize that I am no paper tiger, and have on multiple occasions done face-to-face combat against real NIMBYs on behalf of making Chicago more urban, walkable, and livable.

I want to see retail energy (and economic opportunity), round-the-clock mixed uses, and local economic diversity spread throughout the city, instead of hyperconcentrating even further in existing transient activity nodes. Innovative restaurants — started by exactly the same kind of person who might now just start a food truck instead — traditionally have catalyzed new retail districts and extended the activity hours of other districts (since a fixed-premise restaurant has the incentive of sunk capital costs to try extending hours). Merely piling more businesses into every available inch of, say, Clark & Belmont or Milwaukee & Damen won’t help (1) those of us who live nearby and enjoy sleeping on occasion, (2) people who legitimately need to pass through [including thousands of cyclists and pedestrians every day], (3) people who live a little further out who want more options over there. I’d love to live in a city where great food’s available around every corner, instead of falling all over the place at a few overwhelmed intersections.

Of course Chicago should certainly make it easier for people to open new businesses or try new business ideas: Singapore can get a food stall (it has nearly 20,000 on public premises alone) up and running in two weeks. Giving some people privileged access to commercialize choice bits of public space — as food trucks do by showing up around offices at lunch, around nightclubs at midnight, and otherwise feeding off a few little transient pockets of density — isn’t necessary. “Selling” that space at non-market-determined prices — parking meter rates here don’t reflect market clearing prices for retail square footage and in fact don’t accrue to the public — really gives the trucks an unfair edge on non-mobile businesses. (Maybe location franchises could be auctioned, instead of setting license fees by citywide fiat.) Enforcing the proposed rules requiring that food trucks keep their distance from existing businesses will by definition be difficult, and probably a low priority for cops who can’t be bothered with hundreds of existing laws.

Finally, as a cyclist and a pedestrian, I recognize that having more vehicles on the streets — particularly ones plying areas with high levels of foot traffic, and quite likely lots of drunk people stumbling around — will necessarily negatively impact road safety. (Deaths from cars and trucks outnumber gun deaths in much of the north side.) In a world where cities are finally now understanding the value of reducing vehicle traffic and returning public space to people, sending dozens more trucks out there just to feed a passing yuppie whimsy seems like a step back to me.

Orchard (2)

As Lynn mentions, a public meeting regarding the proposal to build an orchard on Logan Square will take place on Tuesday evening at Logan Square Kitchen. She also points out that DPD (or whoever they are now) says they have an open mind about the proposal.

Again, I welcome the idea of an orchard on a different site, in an area where a quiet garden would be a net benefit to the neighbors. I would even welcome a (temporary) vegetable or flower garden at this site, until the community has a clearer vision for this parcel. (A playlot? An outdoor flea market, for the yard-sale crowd taking over Logan? A graffiti gallery? Who knows?) However, creating an orchard here is a pretty permanent move, and its impact on the neighborhood for the next few decades should be very carefully considered — particularly the opportunity costs of fencing off a good chunk of public space within a growing retail area, where the neighbors (shops, mostly) would derive greater benefit from people than from trees.

I’ve been told that CROP is the only group that’s come forward with a promise to clean/maintain the site (over what time period, I don’t know). In the absence of an SSA or other funding mechanism, the Chamber is unable to step into that role should the site be developed into a public park or plaza. Yet CROP has yet to conclusively demonstrate that they have sufficient organizational capacity in spite of their brief history and narrow funding base. At the very least, as a neighbor I need assurances that CROP has the capacity to keep vagrants and vermin away from the site — and this video doesn’t exactly show off a well-tended garden. By that very low standard of care, the existing informal parking lot at least doesn’t damage the immediate neighborhood and provides a convenience to the neighboring shops. It also doesn’t present much of an opportunity cost, since it could be ripped up tomorrow.

Quick: 31 July

A couple of recent thoughts:

1. “Chicago’s transit system–the country’s second largest with an average 1.8 million riders every weekday–faces some of the nation’s most dire challenges. It has more than $7 billion in unfunded maintenance needs. On parts of the system, for example, trains engineered to speed along at 70 mph now must slow to a 15 mph crawl because the fragile rails can’t handle faster speeds. ‘They’re going at the speed of a horse and buggy because the rails are literally eroding and coming loose from the ties,’ says Ben Forman, research director for MassINC, a nonpartisan, Boston-based public policy think tank. ‘When transit breaks down as it has in Chicago, cities lose a big part of their core.’ ” [Zach Patton in Governing]

2. Dig up the Deep Tunnel? The Philadelphia Water Department, faced with the prospect of an $8 billion bill to deal with combined sewer overflow, has instead presented the EPA with a $1.6 billion green infrastructure plan that seeks to effectively de-pave 1/3 of the city’s impervious surface. Shades of Growing Water here… [h/t Feather O’Connor Houstoun in the same issue of Governing]

3. I’m know it’s so very trendy, but I really don’t understand the fascination with littering Chicago with food trucks. I’ve found them quite annoying in NY and LA:
– they don’t pay rent for the valuable public space they take up
– they unfairly compete with fixed-premise restaurants, particularly since Chicago suffers from many miles of empty storefronts
– they only go to trendy areas which already have lots of shops and foot traffic, thereby merely overcrowding existing transient hotspots and potentially preventing new areas from emerging
– they leave clouds of diesel fumes and noise in their wake, since they run generators even when idling
– they generate mountains of trash in said areas’ already-overflowing trashcans, since there’s no capacity for onboard dishwashing and few sidewalk recycling bins
– they’d be yet more unwieldy vehicles careening through the streets, killing people in crashes.

I certainly don’t dispute the overall goals to have broadly available, inexpensive food and easing the way for entrepreneurs to open foodservice businesses. However, these goals frankly have nothing to do with adding more smelly trucks to already choked streets. Seems like we’d be better off making it easier for people to open small restaurants — perhaps through establishing public markets, or “hawker centres” as Singapore’s government (which counts getting rid of itinerant food vendors as a key public health victory) insists on calling them.

4. A recent conversation turned to imagining the office drama at the planning department in West Hollywood, “America’s First Gay City”: the setting almost seems worthy of a TV series on a gay cable channel. Perhaps a workplace sitcom riffing on “Parks and Rec,” with hilariously micromanaging interior decorators staffing the design review commission, or a drama combining the personal dramatics of [well, just about any gay drama] with a noirish view of (lightly fictionalized) viciously seamy municipal politics. Unlike popularizations of planning like SimCity, this would expose planning not as a bland technocracy, but as a bunch of jealous hacks playing out their inter-personal political dramas across a bigger stage.

Anyhow, the thought reoccured to me upon finding that the vice-chair of WeHo’s transportation commission is perhaps better known as the former author of Boi from Troy, a blog combining Log Cabin Republican political views with a passion for local college football(ers). Actually, I’m pretty sure that WeHo is a pretty well governed place, and its fussy attention is evident in some pretty thoughtful streetscapes — but it’s still funny to imagine.

5. Where in today’s Republican Party are honest-to-god “fiscal conservatives” like Peter Peterson and David Stockman and Bruce Bartlett? What I see on Capitol Hill now is a group of nihilist zombies, holding even the smallest of bills hostage as fiscal death (most notably the recent $34B unemployment extension) while simultaneously seeking to blast a 100X bigger hole in the budget with their sacreder-than-Jeebus tax cuts. These people can’t be serious, and yet they are.

Bartlett: “Republicans have a completely indefensible position on taxes. In their view, deficits cannot arise from tax cuts. No matter how much taxes are cut, no matter how low revenues go as a share of GDP, tax cuts are never a cause of deficits; they result ONLY AND EXCLUSIVELY from spending—and never from spending put in place by Republicans, such as Medicare Part D, TARP, two unfunded wars, bridges to nowhere, etc—but ONLY from Democratic efforts to stimulate growth, help the unemployed, provide health insurance for those without it, etc. The monumental hypocrisy of the Republican Party is something amazing to behold.”