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Transit/urbanism links

[ 116 ] February 25, 2015 |

that I might be blogging about if I had time to blog at the moment.

It’s somewhat shocking that even in the one American city where it’s generally widely acknowledged a car is not necessary, we still have such absurd parking requirements. So this is very good news. Good for DeBlasio and the planning department; when it comes to housing costs parking minimums matter.

Speaking of housing costs: significant construction of new units and rent increases often occur simultaneously, providing a handy cum hoc ergo propter hoc for people who’d like their anti-development preferences to fit more comfortably with their broader political views and/or stated preference for the availability of less expensive housing. But the dodge doesn’t work; supply and demand matters. Even in San Francisco.

Although it relies on a single study from Australia a bit more than I’d prefer, this is a thoughtful reflection on the issue of ‘mode bias’ in public transportation. That riders prefer trains to buses is clear. What we should do with that information isn’t. The worst public transit fad of the last couple of decades, the return of the (toy) streetcars–expensive and shiny but stuck in traffic, and slower than buses–is a good example of overcompensating for perceived mode bias.  I would be curious to hear any SoCal readers thoughts on the characterization of the Orange Line–and its local perception–presented here.

On the urban planning consequences of children mapping slums in India.

Pure, unadulterated evil

[ 135 ] February 12, 2015 |

I missed this during the superb owl of which we must never speak again, but McDonald’s current marketing gimmick is indescribably monstrous; in a remotely just or sane world everyone who approved this madness would have been fired by now, and unable to find marketing work in the future. My first reaction was to call it another entry for my “extroverts don’t understand introverts” file, but that’s grossly unfair to even the most clueless extroverts. I’d happily add a couple zeros to the cost of a McMuffin to avoid this horror. I struggle to imagine that I share a species with people who think this is a good idea. One particularly disastrous result:

 They said all I had to do is call a family member and tell them “I love you”.

The start of the f*ck up is calling my mother who knows that I had a brief history with depression and suicidal thoughts from high school bullies, the second f*ck up is starting the call with I love you.

She immediately started to freak out (mostly because I’m over 1000 miles away from her and the closest family is about 300 miles away from me) and was pretty scared that I was about to commit suicide. Over the course of the next 15 minutes I was on the phone reassuring her that I indeed wasn’t about to kill myself and make sure that she wasn’t on the next plane to arrive and come to visit. (Afterwards she also mentioned that it had given her a small asthma attack, but nothing her inhaler couldn’t handle.)

It’s always fascinating when a company becomes possessed of the notion that it can fundamentally transform itself through marketing gimmicks. I know I’m not alone in that every time I eat at McDonald’s or a similar chain, I’m quite likely to be in a foul mood. Entering such a restaurant is a de facto admission of failure. If I’d had my shit together to get to the grocery store; if I hadn’t been too lazy to cook a bowl of oatmeal this morning; if I’d planned enough time to get something better that takes a few minutes longer; if I had just a modicum of willpower to resist the temptation to eat greasy processed crap; I wouldn’t be here. And virtually every time I enter such a restaurant, I get the distinct vibe that everyone else in the building is more or less in the same boat as I (the employees, of course, are miserable for different and far more serious reasons). I would be, frankly, taken aback and a little troubled if the cashier were to so much as ask me how my day was going (which has never happened). I suppose I can see how one might reach the conclusion that desperate measure are required; unfortunately, the particular desperate measures they opted for merely demonstrate how contemptuous they are of their employees and customers, whose underpaid miserable labor and poor choices, respectively, pay their salaries.

“I made a personal choice for my family”

[ 279 ] February 8, 2015 |

I know, I know, snark, derision, and contempt aren’t effective. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be damned amusing.

Warren, public opinion, and inequality

[ 38 ] January 18, 2015 |

Paul Rosenberg has a good response to Amitai Etzioni’s rather lame attempt at a hatchet-job on Elizabeth Warren at The Atlantic:

Taking Norton and Ariely’s results seriously, we can say that the American people want a much fairer society than they live in, but that the means for articulating this desire—the stories, concepts, policy proposals, etc.—are in scandalously short supply, a de facto example of hypocognition thwarting what people want. Elizabeth Warren is particularly popular precisely because she provides some of the missing means that people are so hungry for—an antidote to the hypocognition that thwarts their desire for a fairer, more just vision of America, which respects both their hard work and their compassionate values. There may be relatively little polling to support this view (though there’s considerably more than you’d expect) but that’s partly just another example of how elites dominate the landscape of acceptable thought to protect their interests, as underscored by recent research by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page. Warren represents a clear alternative to this narrow-minded view. Her popularity derives in large part from her ability to shape narratives that reflect the hidden majority’s shared values and articulate them in policy terms, reversing a decades-long trend by which elites of both parties have turned their backs on the welfare of ordinary Americans.

While Rosenberg offers a much more accurate portrait of American public opinion than does Etzioni, there are reasons to think this offers an overly optimistic account. He’s right, of course, that Americans want a more egalitarian distribution of wealth and income than they’ve got. But it’s almost certainly the case that partisan identity is likely to significantly diminish the ‘hidden majority’ support for redistribution when it turns into an actual plan promoted by and associated with Democratic politicians (as the continued unpopularity of something called “Obamacare” demonstrates). Raising the minimum wage manages to remain broadly popular despite the partisan divide, so it’s important not to be too fatalistic about this. (I suspect one reason for this is the simplicity of the policy; it’s harder to spin or dissemble the basic fairness of it away.) But the lack of specific policy proposals cuts both ways–lots of inequality-reducing proposals could be quite popular in the abstract, but once they become “Democratic” proposals support is likely to conform to a more familiar partisan pattern.

“Should the sounds of sodomy echo through the halls of a Christian home?”

[ 66 ] January 5, 2015 |

Marriage equality in Ireland is on the ballot in Ireland in May, and the forces of discrimination and bigotry appear to have their work cut out for them. Opponents of marriage quality have produced a piece of political propaganda that instantly becomes a classic of the genre; unintentional hilarity worthy of Maggie Gallagher herself.

She’s not getting any better at this.

[ 144 ] December 30, 2014 |

Shorter Phyllis Wise: “I apologize for using the wrong crap excuse for firing Salaita. (No, I won’t be identifying an alternative.) Also, what’s wrong with this guy that he won’t take a payoff to go away?”

Selective racial innocence

[ 95 ] December 10, 2014 |

I was struck by how many commenters in this thread, including some regulars who I think of as more or less reality-based, demonstrated an affection for a version of the pundit’s fallacy regarding Democrats and the south in this thread. I do think there’s a kernel of truth somewhere in this complaint–political views and ideologies are not two dimensional and single peaked, the median voter approach ignores complexities of preference distributions. It’s plausible there are instances where chasing a slice of the center-right electorate creates problems just as large as that slice you might hope to gain with other parts of one’s coalition, while doing some long term damage to the project of the Democratic message.

But commenters are saying much, much more than this. The Democrats, we’re repeatedly assured, could do just fine in the South if they had a strong candidate who articulated a strong progressive message. This is almost completely untethered from any concrete empirical claims; the first thing I’d want to see is evidence that non-voters are a) ready to be persuaded to vote by a different kind of candidate or message and b) the kind of candidate and message they’re waiting for is distinctly liberal in the context of contemporary American politics.

What’s striking to me is the extent to which people who aren’t particularly naive about America’s racial history and its implications for contemporary politics in other contexts manage to forget this context so easily when it’s convenient to do so. Southern whites have never, in significant numbers, engaged in any political project of note that required cooperation with blacks. When emancipation made it appear as though such compromise and cooperation might be necessary, they waged a campaign of terrorism to prevent it. When Roosevelt came to them with a radical in the context of American politics set of poverty alleviation measures, they made the exclusion of blacks a condition of their support. When voting rights became entrenched, 100 years late, and Southern blacks joined the coalition of the Democratic party, they abandoned the Democratic party over the course of a generation.

One can make a plausible case that race relations are, however slowly and unevenly, improving. (Or as Chris Rock more accurately puts it, that white people are getting less crazy). It is not inconceivable that Southern Whites and Blacks might cooperate on a significant political project at some point in the future. But it’s the height of naivety to assume that the only reason they’re not doing so now is that no one is coming along giving the right kind of stirring populist speeches about the public option and the 1% and more aggressive regulation of the financial sector–that there’s a rhetorical trick or policy fix that would inspire southern whites to abandon a three century old refusal to cooperate with their black neighbors.

I flipped on MSNBC briefly on the evening of the non-indictment of Garner’s killer. Ta-Nehisi Coates was briefly a guest on Chris Hayes show. Hayes was enthusiastically reporting about what appeared to him to be a moment of ideological comity against police brutality against black people, pointing to a number of prominent conservative voices expressing shock and outrage over the non-indictment. He breathlessly speculated about how maybe just maybe this will be the moment that inspires an effective movement about police violence and accountability, and asked Coates to comment on that. Coates reply was patient and a bit indulgent of Hayes’ optimism, but his answer was clear–the fight to get America to recognize the full humanity of black people is staggeringly slow, a multi-generational project, and to see it as something that needs the right media firestorm to fix isn’t a position worthy of a serious political analyst.

America’s racial history has been, and will continue to be, a major impediment to a variety of worthwhile and necessary political projects. I, too, wish there was some shortcut, some fix, some “hack”, to get around this monumental hurdle to a better, more just, more functional society. But indulging in the fantasy such a shortcut exists is a mistake, because it produces bad political analysis but also because it constitutes a failure to look at America’s racial history squarely and directly, and seeing it for what it is. The temptation to avert our gaze is understandably strong but must be resisted.

Happy Bertha-Day!

[ 126 ] December 7, 2014 |

I’ve written before about one of the most ill-conceived infrastructure projects in the country currently–a plan to build a deep bore tunnel under downtown Seattle so highway 99 (currently an elevated freeway as functional as it is unacceptably dangerous) can, theoretically, bypass downtown Seattle efficiently. If this project managed to be completed on time and under budget, it would not come close to justify the project; it will be useless for a majority of users of the viaduct today, as its most common use is to get to and from downtown. Given that the technology in use was experimental–the kind of tunneling machine they’d be using had never been used for a tunnel this size before, and the condition of the soil so close to Puget Sound raised serious concerns–the odds of a such an outcome were, already quite slim for such megaprojects, were surely slimmer than usual for this one.

It was a year ago that “Bertha” the tunneling machine stopped working, around 1019 feet into her planned 9270 foot journey. Since that day, the news about Bertha has been, alternatingly, vague, implausible optimism and alarming admissions that reveal how uncertain the future of this project actually is.  From January to April, we went from “Bertha will start drilling again next week” to “We plan to begin drilling again in March 2015, once we dig a vertical pit to access the machine so we can fix it.” Various theories about why Bertha stopped working were presented as fact, only be to later be revealed as mere speculation. In April, the plan was to complete the new tunnel to Bertha by September, conduct repairs over the Winter, and resume boring in March. It’s now December, the tunnel to Bertha is only 60% complete. This has yielded an admission that drilling might not resume in March–we might have to wait until April for that. As grim as the news is, it’s actually quite lucky the machine broke down where it did, as a Popular Mechanics article reported:  “To be honest, if Bertha was going to break down anywhere, that’s about the best possible place it could have happened on the job—they’ll get her fixed,” Amanda Foley, North American editor of Tunnelling Journal, told me in an email.” Further alone, she’ll be under skyscrapers; access of the sort that’s being attempted now will become difficult to impossible. This raises the stakes a great deal for fixing whatever is wrong with it, of course–it’s not at all clear how the project could be completed if it gets stuck again further down the line. David Kroman has a well done account of Bertha’s (first?) lost year.

The point of all this, of course, was to produce an alternative to the unsafe viaduct freeway. Damaged by a 2001 earthquake, it’s a another Cypress Street waiting to happen.  Which is what makes Bertha’s anniversary news –that the segment of the viaduct near the vertical tunnel sunk and additional 1.2 inches in two weeks in November alone particularly alarming. Earlier this year WSDOT told the council that the viaduct’s sinking over an additional inch may cause serious safety concerns. So the WSDOT spokesman’s line here–“don’t worry, everything’s safe, and we’re going to try and figure out if it’s actually safe ASAP” isn’t terribly reassuring.

One of the many ironies is that this project is a direct consequences of the viaduct’s unsafe condition; other than that it’s an ugly-but-highly functional piece of infrastructure. In addition to being the worst available option for replacing the viaduct’s functionality (a cut and cover tunnel and a surface replacement+enhanced transit option would have served far larger percentages of the population of vehicles utilizing the viaduct today), it was the worst available option for safety as well, as both of those project would have enabled the viaduct to be torn down sooner. The failures of the project to replace it are both ensuring it’ll probably remain up longer, while quite possibly making it less safe in the interim.

Transit advocates are often accused, absurdly, of engaging in a “war on cars”. If we were indeed committed to such a war, I’m not sure we could have come up better with anything than this. The overruns will likely cannibalize WSDOT’s budget, including all manner of road repair and construction projects (some of which are necessary and useful) for the foreseeable future. If, as appears increasingly likely, the viaduct must be shut down before the tunnel is ready, transit will become even more crucial for accessing downtown, and far fewer cars will be able to do so with any efficiency at peak travel times.  Meanwhile, Sound Transit’s tunneling project for light rail, using well established, off the shelf tunneling technology and conservative cost estimates, chugs along ahead of schedule and under budget, and Seattle just voted itself a tax increase to fund more bus service.


Rod Dreher: A Piece of Work

[ 79 ] December 5, 2014 |

This is Roy’s beat, but his rundown didn’t cover Dreher, whose blog I’ve found myself lurking on lately for reasons I can neither explain nor defend.

Dreher starts off sounding more or less sane, decent, and human, calling the non-indictment “deeply, deeply disturbing” and approvingly quoting a Southern Baptist leader that ” it’s high time we start listening to our African American brothers and sisters in this country when they tell us they are experiencing a problem.”

But then…the updates start. “Bobby” whom we are assured is a lawyer, sets him straight (while getting a key point of law wrong), explaining the non-indictment was the proper outcome. This relieves Dreher of the burden of worrying about things like racial injustice and police accountability, allowing him to settle back into his comfort zone of sneering at liberals. Via more missives from “Bobby” we learn that liberals who purport to be troubled by…exactly what Dreher appeared to be troubled by just the other day are nothing but posturing hypocrites because they hold the absurd expectation that police should work to prevent crime while not unnecessarily killing black people, which is apparently a completely unreasonable request. Yoga classes, “SWPL”s, kale, and gentrification all make guest appearances in what Dreher tells his readers is Bobby’s “wisdom.”

Cuomo’s share of the blame

[ 6 ] December 3, 2014 |

As New York’s cretinous governor scrambles to appear to be troubled by today’s outcome, let’s not forget the role he played in today’s miscarriage of justice.

Declining divorce

[ 193 ] December 3, 2014 |

I’m sure most of our readership is sufficiently well-informed to have not fallen prey to the “half of marriages end in divorce” and “divorce is on the rise” myths that have been so persistent (I’ve taken to asking some of my classes about this, I’ve yet to encounter a student who doesn’t believe both these things to be true), but this article presents the story of our declining divorce rate with one of the best visualizations of the data to present it I’ve seen.

Obviously, one reason the myth persists is that is serves the purposes of social conservatives, and they promote it. First, in their search for a reason to deny marriage rights to same sex couples, they largely settled on “marriage is a fragile institution in crisis, and worked to make it immune from new evidence. Second, though, and more importantly I suspect, it demonstrates rather clearly that to the extent that they were narrowly correct about a relationship between feminist advances and rising divorce rates, more recent trends show that those same advances are a big part of the story of the subsequent decline in divorce. Marriage was an institution that served men, and imposed extremely high exit costs on women. When those exit costs declined, men were less able to trap women in marriages that weren’t working for them, and they left in large numbers. Now, marriages are more likely to constructed in such a way that women get something closer to as much value out of them as men do, so divorce goes down. Feminism made marriage stronger, by creating the conditions under which women are more likely be in a position to marry, and construct their marriage, on their own terms.

Non-believing clergy

[ 116 ] November 28, 2014 |

An interesting but flawed and limited take on a phenomenon I’ve long been fascinated with. I’ve met a few such people, over the years, and they’ve suggested to me the ranks of clergy who fit that description are far greater than anyone realizes. Clergy have a set general tasks–counselor, community organizer, etc.–and their and their parishioners religious beliefs and commitments are one of the primary tools they’re expected to use in these tasks. This gives them a perspective on their faith lay people are considerably less likely to have–they see how it can work, but also how and when it doesn’t. There are a variety of ways to cope with that, and some of them, it seems to me, could have a significantly corrosive effect on faith.

It’s limitations and flaws are largely a function of viewing the phenomenon through the eyes of evangelical atheism. Such a perspective treats non-believing clergy instrumentally and teleologically. There’s no evidence any critical energy was directed at the coincidence that the outcome best for Cristina’s political movement is also, exactly and precisely, what is best for such individuals. Now that they’ve abandoned religious belief they rightfully and properly belong on team public atheist; they merely need help to find the resources, psychologically, financially, and otherwise, to make that next big step and become what they’re supposed to be. (The silliest part of the article is the breathless fantasy of a mass public conversion to atheism by clergy triggering the collapse of organized religion.)

But conversion stories are old and familiar. I’m much more interested in those who chose to stay in their positions. Not the megachurch grifters and profit-takers, but the ordinary and decent people making a modest living and trying sincerely to do good and help people. Some of them, no doubt, are like Rumpole’s father: “a Church of England clergyman who, in early middle life, came to the reluctant conclusion that he no longer believed any of the 39 articles” but “as he was not fitted by character or training for any other profession” he soldiered on. Some of these people might appreciate the rescue Christina wishes to offer; others may simply be comfortable where they are. But it’s a third group that interests me the most: those who have ceased to believe but don’t see that as a reason they should leave their position. How do they view the positive value of the religious beliefs they teach and reinforce? How do they counsel or approach fellow doubters? For obvious reasons, such a perspective is very rarely stated forthrightly. Christina closes by quoting and endorsing the position that if churches would merely abandon religious dogma and ritual and become community centers, the good work they do would just continue but would be enhanced. There’s no argument offered for this position, which should provoke some skepticism from anyone as empirically minded as evangelical atheists like Christina purport to be; I’d be far more interested in hearing the perspective of a practicing but non-believing religious leader on the subject.

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