Wednesday, June 25, 2008

What's Good for the Gander...

Cute letter in The Oregonian Tuesday. The writer most likely was ironically supporting a position opposite of what his letter stated, but it's definitely an unconventional proposal:

Serve this sector

It is lamentable that the residents of the Montavilla neighborhood have to look at prostitutes on their street corners. I think that The City That Works needs to establish an out-call center for the illegal sex workers, just like it has for the illegal laborers.

It seems to be discriminatory and sexist for The City That Works to aid and abet a sector of the illegal workforce dominated by men, and not provide the same level of service to sectors of the illegal workforce dominated by women.

DAVID ZIMMERMAN Northeast Portland

Of course, maybe the city could just hook up the hookers with free laptops so they can advertise on craigslist like all the others.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Groovin' ...down a crowded avenue

Doin' anything we want to do (except drive)

I usually take a bike ride through some Portland neighborhoods every Sunday. This Sunday, I was joined by several thousand other cyclists. No, not all my close friends—in fact, I recognized only a handful of people. This was the first Sunday Parkways (aka Ciclovia), sponsored by the City of Portland's transportation department.

They blocked auto traffic on six miles of streets in North Portland, stretching from Failing St. and Mississippi to about Greeley just south of Lombard. Four parks on the route had bands, food booths and information centers. It was a very leisurely and social ride, drawing the typical dawdling Sunday biker. There were so many slow bikes, not to mention pedestrians, that it was nearly impossible to hit double digit speed. I suppose that was the point, but me, I like the feeling of the wind blowing through the holes in my helmet.

While it was a pleasant ride, I don't know if it will do much to induce more people to ride bikes under normal traffic circumstances. After all, riding with the roads all closed off to all cars is a lot different than riding a bike in heavy daytime traffic. It may, however, prompt bike newbies to get out on their bikes on Sundays. If they rode a few miles to get to the closed-off route, they discovered that there is hardly any auto traffic on Sundays anywhere in Portland.

Another benefit of this event was letting people discover Peninsula Park, a real jewel in the city's park system with its rose garden, giant fountain and octagonal bandstand.

It was pretty much like Bridge Pedal without the bridges. And also without the free water bottles. When I started out in the morning, it was gray and overcast, but that quickly burned off and I found myself in need of water. At every park on the route, and several stops in between, there were plenty of coffee vendors, but no one was handing out water bottles. I was saved about halfway through the ride by the wonderful women from Blend coffee house, who had set up a table along the route a block away from their new location at Greeley and Killingsworth. One of the owners, Christie, pulled a big bottle of Crystal Geyser out of an ice bucket an just gave it to me.

The route approached bike gridlock at a few points, notably the three pedestrian bridges riders were forced to cross, where dismounting was required. Two of these crossed I-5 and the other the Going Street freeway to Swan Island. On that one, knowing my way around a bit, I just rode east a couple of blocks to Interstate to get around it. My notion of biking is once on the bike, stay on the bike.

Things observed along the ride:

7 yard sales
1 yard art sale
2 kids' lemonade stands (and one kid entrepreneur selling toys)
1 woman in frilly Victorian dress and hat promoting a historic house
8 t'ai chi practitioners in Peninsula Park
1 free hot dog stand (sponsored by the Bicycle Transportation Alliance)
1 free juggling class
2 unicyclists
Dozens of friendly cops stopping traffic
50 (approximately) dogs in Burley trailers, on bike baskets or trotting alongside
300 (approximately) adult bicyclists setting a bad example by not wearing helmets
0 incidents of road rage

I gather that this was the first of maybe several such Sunday street closure events, though the transportation office's web site doesn't say when the next one will be.

Some suggestions, however:

1.Start it later. The streets were closed off from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Eight in the morning is a little early on a Sunday. I haven't even read the Sunday comics by then, let alone had breakfast.
2.Close off a commercial street. Almost the entire six mile course was on quiet residential streets, which are fine for biking on and Sunday—or for that matter, most any other day. They should have run this course right down Mississippi Ave. The throngs of bicyclists would easily make up for the lack of auto-borne customers for most of the businesses. The exception would be the Rebuilding Center, but it is accessible by an alley behind the store. Think of how cosmopolitan it would feel to have a street lined with cafes, pubs and stores, no cars and yet thousands of people streaming through them on foot or on bikes.
3.Follow the “Bike Boulevards” more closely. The North Portland route wandered in and out of the assigned bike boulevards for those neighborhoods, but didn't adhere to any. These safer streets are not well marked or publicized by the city, but they do make daily bike commuting much easier.
4.Rotate through Portland's neighborhoods. I think this first event was meant to introduce citizens to North Portland, which has an undeserved sketchy rep. It also was a really flat ride. But how about Foster/Powell to Woodstock in Southeast? From like 52nd to 72nd on Foster down to Woodstock. That's a bid shorter,so maybe wander over toward Reed College, as well. Another good ride would include Northeast Alberta, Killingsworth down to Fremont and Alameda. Ooh, now we're getting into a ritzy area whose residents might object. Screw 'em. On the other hand, the Lents district, often disparaged as “Felony Flats,” would offer a flat ride in a somewhat outlying neighborhood, and it has a farmer's market on Sundays, too.
5.Finally, if Portland really wants to get serious about increasing bicycling and decreasing cars on the road, the city should plan a car-free zone on a different day of the week. Really, it's so quiet and peaceful on Sundays that one doesn't need an inducement to ride a bike. But, say, Friday afternoon from 2 to 6 p.m., in downtown, now that's when I'd like to see some streets—and at least one bridge--closed to cars.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Global Warming: It's Time to Think About Plan B


You ride your bike to work. You recycle everything that you don't compost. You eat mostly local and organically grown food and eat very little meat, if any. You've weatherized your house and installed energy saving light bulbs and appliances. You just bought a Prius.

You are the archtypical Oregonian, as green as can be for a lot of good reasons, primary among them the threat of global warming.

And then along comes the Tata Nano.

The what?

Just the world's cheapest new car, costing a mere $2,500. It's dubbed “the people's car” by Tata Motors of India. It's going to be on the market soon and it shouldn't be another Yugo. Tata is no backward little Third World company. Earlier this year, Tata bought the luxury lines Jaguar and Land Rover from Ford for $2 billion.

The Nano, however, is the car for people who can't afford to own a car. There are billions of such people in the world. There's a billion each in both China and India. Just think about what's going to happen to the world's equilibrium with a billion more cars on the road. Your conscientiously small carbon footprint is going to seem awfully puny in the fight against global warming.

But don't blame China and India. Most countries in Europe can't meet the goals of the Kyoto Protocol. And here in the U.S., our Democratic Congress passed new fuel standards for automobiles that set the average fuel economy rating for an automobile company’s fleet of cars at 35 mpg. This law, which is weaker than almost all standards in Europe and Japan, doesn’t take effect until 2020.

Remember the report issued by the International Panel on Climate Change last November? The IPCC, which shared the Nobel Prize last year with Al Gore, issued some dire warnings. "If there's no action before 2012, that's too late, there is not time," said Rajendra Pachauri, a scientist and economist who heads the IPCC. "What we do in the next 2-3 years will determine our future. This is the defining moment."

Pachauri, an Indian, has said he was "having nightmares" because of the Nano and added that the car represents bankruptcy of India's environmental policy.

No one doubts global warming anymore. Even President Bush seems to acknowledge it and has a plan for us to deal with it--as of 2025. Nevertheless, the subject of climate change still suffers from extreme levels of ignorance when politicians and pundits start talking about it. The most widespread layer of manure is that we as individuals, or even as local or regional governments, can do anything meaningful to reverse global warming through the reduction of greenhouse gases.

On a national or international level, it may have been possible to slow down global warming if Gore had become president in 2000 and there were enough other world leaders like him. But after eight years of the Bush regime, the odds don't look good. It looks like we're toast, no matter how many Oregonians buy a Prius or ride a bike.

But before you get so despondent that you go on a gluttonous gas guzzling bender, careening across the land in a 50-foot motorhome from one Arby's to another, all the while tossing beer cans and water bottles out the window until you get so crazed that you obsessively plot to hunt down Dick Cheney and blow him up in his secret bunker with a suicide bomb—wait, there is hope after all.

There is a Plan B. And that brings us to Prof. Paul J. Crutzen, the 1995 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry. Crutzen, who won the Nobel prize for his work on the hole in the ozone layer, told the New York Times, “So far, there is little reason to be optimistic.”

He believes a political or social remedy to climate change is implausible and proposes a technological fix instead. Crutzen has proposed a method of artificially cooling the global climate by releasing particles of sulphur in the upper atmosphere, which would reflect sunlight and heat back into space.

Crutzen estimates that it would cost $50 billion to cool the earth this way, or about 5% of the world's annual military spending. By contrast, a competing scheme to put trillions of tiny wafer like plastic lenses into space to deflect the sun's rays would cost several trillion dollars.

I bet this “geo-engineering” solution rubs every right-thinking environmentalist the wrong way. It goes against our Puritan nature. It embraces decadence. It's like eating supersized Big Mac meals every day and then erasing the extra pounds through liposuction and stomach stapling. It's like going off to an Ivy League school, partying like there's no tomorrow, flunking out, maxing out the family credit cards, hocking the family jewels, getting busted for drugs and still getting bailed out by your parents.

Just wrong.

On the other hand, what's our goal? Is it to reverse global warming, or just to make people change their profligate ways? We can pass cap-and-trade laws, sign treaties and protocols and provide tax credits for energy conservation, but we're just re-arranging the deck chairs and meanwhile, the Maldives, a small but sovereign nation, is sinking into the Indian Ocean.

Closer to home, huge stretches of ocean front property throughout the United States could easily end up submerged. Worldwide, 634 million people live on coastal land that is 30 feet or less above sea level, all of which could be gone in a couple of decades.

Then there's the drought, flooding, famines, fires, severe storms, rampant species extinction and other environmental maladies which already are striking the world and will get only more severe as the earth warms.

As all of these tragedies become more pervasive, someone is going to act on Crutzen's idea. It could be the U.N. or a special treaty organization or single nation—or even private enterprise. But at some point, global warming is going to be stopped cold by shooting crap into space to block out the sun.

Our environmental crises will not end there, but mucking up the upper atmosphere will clear the air politically. It ought to deprive the corn cartel of a rationale for the ludicrous economics of converting food to fuel. Same thing for the neo-nuclear power lobby. Perhaps it will allow us to take a more comprehensive and balanced look at the environmental problems facing the world.

What we will discover is that most green measures to reduce carbon emissions are necessary for other reasons. China now consumes just nine percent of the world's oil, but accounts for a third of the increase in consumption of oil. And that's before any of those Tata Nanos roll off the assembly line. The recent shock of $4-a-gallon gas has prompted more people to reduce driving, switch to smaller cars and start riding bikes and buses than several years worth of ads about saving the polar bears.

I'm going to keep riding my bike everywhere I can, not to save the earth, but because it saves me money, makes me feel better, connects me with my community and is just fun. Though it would be more fun if, in Portland, we actually had some global warming.

Politicians, of course, aren't talking to or about Paul Crutzen. The notion that it's too late for the world to confront climate change through conservation is too new and perhaps too defeatist in 2008. But by 2012, it will be the hot topic of the presidential campaign.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Thinking Outside the Bike Box

It seems like everyone and their brother is riding a bike these days. It's the right time of year, and then there's the price of gas. So people are parking their guzzler and pulling that old mountain bike out of the garage.

Well, not really. There is a steady upward trend in bike riding in Portland and that trend usually accelerates this time of year. I am hearing from friends who have started riding their bikes to work or for errands. But I'm also now sitting at a coffee house on east Burnside listening to a steady stream of automobile traffic. It's the same as it ever was.

A survey last year found that 60 percent of Portland residents said they wanted to commute by bike, but didn't because they are afraid of getting crushed by an SUV or a garbage truck. If this survey is accurate, that means that if urban cycling was suddenly as risk-free as driving, about 20 percent of our fellow citizens would start biking more often; the other 40 percent would find some other excuse or procrastinate. Even so, adding 20 percent of Stumptown's population to the bike lanes would quintuple the level of riding that exists now.

Actually, cycling in the central part of Portland is pretty safe. Yes, a lot of bicyclists have been killed in accidents in the past couple of years, but many of them were practicing unprotected pedaling. No lights, no light clothing, no helmets. An emergency room nurse recently told me that helmetless riders account for 80 percent of all bike fatalities. People who don't blow through stoplights, pay attention to cars and make sure they are visible to drivers can bike safely in town.

In addition, most major thoroughfares inside of 82nd have bike lines and/or have relatively slow traffic. The inner eastside boasts a network of “bike boulevards” that allow cyclists to ride unimpeded on low traffic side streets like Clinton and Ankeny.

It could be better. It could be a lot better. The outer eastside, and anyplace south of Sellwood, (how, exactly, does one bike to Milwaukie?) remain bike hostile.

Here are three things that could make the biking life far better:

1.Dig tunnels under the major streets that cross bike boulevards. This was done in Eugene years ago on its bike path through the southern part of town. It makes the bike path almost a freeway. If digging a tunnel is not feasible, install a traffic light.
2.Get serious about bikes on MAX. With a bike and the MAX line, you can get to almost anywhere in the Metro area. But can you get your bike on MAX? The cars can hold about six bikes, and don't try that at rush hour. Tri-Met needs to order new cars, or additions to cars, that accommodate up to 20 bikes. There's no way Portland can reach its ridership goals if the mass transit complement is deficient.
3.Bike freeways. I'm sure creative engineering can carve out enough space for a big bike freeway along I-84, the Sunset Highway, or the MAX lines that run in these directions. For future lines, build in the bike freeway component. Look at it as a better use of public transit dollars. Currently, the older MAX lines carry about two percent of rush hour commuters. And the MAX is maxed out. It's impossible to add more cars. A bike line, if built wide enough, may never get maxed out.

I ride a bike almost everywhere in town. If I didn't have to go to lumber yards and home improvement stores for various projects around and in my house, I would hardly ever get into my ramshackle old van. I've been biking most of my life, even the four years I lived in Los Angeles (so okay, I lived in Venice, which has a wonderful long bike path up and down the beach). I bike for a lot of reasons: I'm cheap. I gain humongous amounts of pounds if I don't get on my bike. My butt looks good and I want to keep it that way. I can get to almost anywhere near where I live in less time than I can by car. And mostly because it's fun and makes me feel like a kid whenever I soar down a street.

But to get those reluctant and squeamish citizens on their bikes, we ultimately need to separate bike and auto traffic. Not by means of a painted line, but with physical barriers. That's how it's done in Amsterdam, the world's number one bike city.

In Portland, currently about 5 percent of all commutes are made by bike, and yet bike infrastructure—bike lanes, signage, those new boxes at stoplights, etc.--amounts to just one percent of total government spending on transportation. If bicycling received the same ratio of public dollars per user that light rail does, we might see elevated , covered bike freeways crisscrossing the city. And I say, why not?

This would benefit more than just the bike newbies. Those of us who have biked in heavy traffic would appreciate the added speed that an unencumbered bikeway offers. It's aggravating to be getting up to speed and then have to stop at a light or a stop sign every few blocks, which happens on bike boulevards, while on the main streets, the stoplights are all calibrated for automobile traffic. The only long bike paths useful for commuting in the city are the those on each side of the Willamette River from Sellwood and John's Landing. There's also the Springwater Corridor from Gresham, but there needs to be some police presence along that route as there are parts of it that look like scenes from Mad Max.

Gresham is 12 miles from downtown and most of those miles are pretty flat. With a central bike freeway, you could make a door-to-door trip in about 45 minutes, which is the same amount of time that Tri-Met's web site says it takes to get from Gresham to Pioneer Square.

Pie in the sky? Hey, the real pie in the sky is the notion that hundreds of millions of people can burn a finite amount of fossil fuels for personal transportation and entertainment. And now we have more people in the world eating that pie.