Thursday, March 29, 2007

WTF, Burma?

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
The new capital of Myanmar (BBC News)

Dictator Ne Win ruled Burma (now called "Myanmar") with an iron fist from 1962 to 1988, sometimes employing a style that had the strangeness that still characterizes Burmese rule. He was heavy into astrology, and would make important policy decisions based on the whims of his astrologer(s). To avoid assassination, he allegedly follow a superstition of stomping on a slab of raw meat while shooting his visage in a mirror with a handgun. He even changed the Burmese currency (kyat) denominations to correspond with his lucky numbers, which, needless to say, caused a financial crisis in a country that has always been poor in its recent history.

To this day, Myanmar is ruled by a military junta that "came to power" in a 1988 coup during uprisings where thousands of protesters were murdered. The coup was really just the retention of power by the old dictatorship (but not the old dictator) under a different name. Oppressive regime, Mach II, claims to have embraced democracy, but it is really just a shell game. In 1990, a parliamentary election was held in which the real democratic party, the National League for Democracy, led by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, won a vast majority of seats. The State Law and Order Restoration Council, as the junta endearingly called itself, simply declared the results void, claiming that it was not really an election. The SLORC has been ruling ever since (now calling themselves, even more endearingly, the State Peace and Development Council), the NLD has been kept under raps and not allowed to organize, Aung San Suu Kyi has spent much of her time under house arrest, and Myanmar is riddled with human rights abuses, forced labor, in-fighting, drug smuggling, severe poverty, and fear of government persecution.

It's hard to know exactly what is going on in Myanmar, though. Besides North Korea, it is perhaps the most secretive country on the planet. The media is largely state-run. It is hard for visitors to get far past the major city (and former capital) of Yangon (formerly Rangoon), and sanctions from most Western countries make it difficult anyway. If they do, it may very well be that they will be surveiled by government spies. The regime doesn't want to show outsiders what they already know: how poorly the country is faring in terms of economic and social indicators.

But now things may become even more secretive, because, in a move that has simply bewildered many observers, the regime is moving the capital from Yangon, on the coast of the Bay of Bengal, to near the town of Pyinmana, in the center of the country. More specifically, it is creating a new capital from scratch, called Naypyidaw.
Burma's decision to shift its seat of government has left many analysts at a loss to explain the move.

After all, why go to the huge trouble and expense of relocating thousands of officials to a remote mountainous region, when there is a well-established political infrastructure in the port city of Rangoon?

[snip]

[Analysts] said the real reason was probably still a mystery, but it was possible the country's hard-line military rulers were worried about foreign invasion, or wanted more control over ethnic minorities in the border regions, or were even following the advice of fortune tellers.

[snip]

Joseph Silverstein believes the most likely explanation for the relocation is advice by traditional Burmese fortune-tellers.

"Everybody listens to fortune-tellers in Burma," he said.

General Ne Win, who came to power in 1962, was totally dependent on their advice, Mr Silverstein added.

"He is once said to have decided to change the direction of traffic overnight [as a result of a fortune teller]. It caused a huge number of accidents," he said.
While all Myanmar government offices will be moving to Naypyidaw, diplomats and embassies have not been told to follow, which might pull the plug on the already tenuous awareness outsiders have of Burmese affairs.

Friday, March 16, 2007

George Will's Traffic Congestion Solution: Repackaging the Status Quo

x-post: The Proving Ground

George Will has a keen ability to package ill-informed nonsense in a shiny wrap of apparent erudition.

Not that I disagree with all of the points in his recent article on traffic congestion entitled "Fighting the Real Gridlock." I am in favor, for example, of dynamic tolling on highways and reforming transportation pork. It's just that the spirit of the whole article contradicts itself by reaffirming the status quo it purports to shatter.

It starts off well by recognizing the costs of traffic congestion: monetary costs, family time, time for civic engagement, and so forth. (Will's occasional mention of transportation secretary Mary Peters, perhaps some politically-motivated hat tip, is awkward, as she is not really essential to the article.) Will notes that
[i]n the past 20 years, congestion in the 85 largest cities has caused the number of hours lost each year by the average driver in rush hours to increase from 16 to 47. In the 13 largest cities, drivers are stuck in traffic the equivalent of nearly eight workdays.
But then comes the call for "fresh thinking and departures from the status quo." Since the status quo has been building new highways and adding new lanes to old highways, it's exciting to hear what this "fresh thinking" might be.
There must be new highways and new lanes on some old ones.
Aw, what a letdown. The psychology of prior investment affects even the most erudite among us, for even they can't let go of the infrastructure that currently makes possible nearly half the world's automotive carbon emissions.
But there also must be new ways -- made possible by new technologies -- of using lanes.
No doubt we must forge ahead with new technologies to reduce congestion on existing highways, yet Will's big solution is just a refurbishing of the status quo. Or, as James Howard Kunstler would call it, "a desperate wish to keep the cars running by any conceivable means, at all costs."

To make this tired old scheme justifiable, Will must brush aside the formidable objection that is the theory of "induced travel": adding more car lanes to a highway only increases demand to drive on it.
The usual scolds -- environmentalists, urban "planners," [ouch, those quotation marks sting deep] enthusiasts for public transit (less than 5 percent of the workforce uses it) -- argue that more highways encourage more driving ("induced demand") and hence are self-defeating. But as Ted Balaker and Sam Staley respond in their new book on congestion, "The Road More Traveled," among the 10 largest metropolitan areas, Los Angeles has the least pavement per person; Dallas has twice as much per person and half as much congestion.
Responding to conservative misinformation is like playing "Find the Fallacy." Here Will uses a single, flawed comparison, cited from a book by two conservative libertarians, in an attempt to disprove induced travel and implicitly argue against the fact that highway-heavy, transit-poor cities are recipes for congestion. Dallas does indeed have less congestion than Los Angeles, yet Will presents no evidence that it is because of its pavement levels. The fallacy is implied causality in the presence of mere correlation. In reality, there are many, many factors that contribute to, or mitigate, traffic congestion.

A simple look at the numbers casts doubt on Balaker and Staley's claim. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, in the 21-year period from 1982 to 2003, congestion in both Dallas and Los Angeles increased. But Dallas's congestion increased at a rate 61% higher than that of Los Angeles. This is because Dallas's congestion index increased 46 points over that time period, while Los Angeles's congestion index increased only 28 points. In fact, Los Angeles has held its congestion relatively steady since 1990, while Dallas's congestion index has risen 23 points.

What has been happening in Los Angeles to keep its congestion steady over the last 17 years? It might have something to do with mass transit, the real gridlock fighter. Los Angeles's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) opened the region's first light rail line in 1990, its first heavy rail line in 1993, and another light rail line in 1995 (Wikipedia). MetroLink, the regional rail system, began service in 1992. The Antelope Valley Transit Authority, covering the exurbs of Lancaster and Palmdale, was formed in 1992. And these are not all of the transit additions Los Angeles made in the early 90s.

Of course, back in the day, Los Angeles used to have an excellent streetcar before it was slowly killed by General Motors, Standard Oil, Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, and other corporations seeking to force Angelenos to use their products to get around.

Today, the city is fighting the legacy of smog and congestion created by auto-dependent infrastructure and is embracing increased transit capacity and smart growth strategies. It has a long way to go, but LA has a chief planner, Gail Goldberg, and a mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, who recognize the importance of smart growth.

Public transportation, not selling toll roads to private companies, is what will relieve America's congestion, and Americans are beginning to recognize this, even if George Will doesn't. In 2006, 10.1 billion trips were taken via public transportation, the largest public transportation ridership in 49 years.
Public transit use is up 30 percent since 1995. That is more than double the growth rate of the population (12 percent) and higher than the growth rate for the vehicle miles traveled on our roads (24 percent) during that same period. In 2006, public transit ridership grew 2.9 percent over 2005.
The article noted that light rail use increased by the highest percentage (5.6 percent). Madison officials may want to take note of that figure, as the city considers building its own light rail line. Minneapolis's new light rail line continued its ridership success with an 18.4 percent increase. This is a rail line that was opposed tooth-and-nail by then--State House Majority Leader (and now Governor) Tim Pawlenty. Even Dallas residents are tiring of all that pavement: bus ridership in the city was up 8.3 percent in 2006.

And this is all only 1.5 years removed from the passage of SAFETEA-LU, the infamous pork-laden transportation bill steered primarily by Alaska Republicans, lopsided by massive highway allocations, including the notorious "Bridges to Nowhere," and relatively scant public transit and bicycle rations.

Besides relieving congestion, the huge benefit of public transit is the gas it saves. The APTA found that transit's record ridership saved 1.4 billion gallons of gasoline, which is enough to fill gasoline cans that could stretch to the moon (PDF). Traffic congestion, on the other hand, wastes 2.3 billion gallons of gasoline (FHWA).

Yes, there are some things we can do on the highways to relieve congestion, but focusing solely on highways misses the larger solution of increased alternative transportation. But seeing that solution will require actual fresh thinking and freedom from the pavement status quo.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Madison Walks the Walk

x-post: The Proving Ground

In a nation with so many cities held hostage by car-dominated infrastructure, I am proud to say that Madison, Wisconsin has just been named the U.S.'s most walkable city by the American Podiatric Medical Association, aka foot doctors. (Actually, the APMA's title is "Best Fitness-Walking Cities," which I'll comment on later.)

Madison is reaping the benefits of its walker-friednly plan adopted 10 years ago. From the perspective of someone who has visited Madison many times yet never lived there, it really is enjoyable to walk around the city. Its walkability no doubt feeds off of its culture. UW obviously plays a big role. It has a strong local progressive mindset. It has one of the best local food systems in the country.

But its walkability also contributes to its culture. Try having a Halloween celebration like Madison's in Orange County, or Detroit, or Tuscon. You can't show off your Royal Tenenbaums costumes while driving an SUV on a collector road in suburban Atlanta.

Or...Miami? That's right, the warm-weather hub and home of New Urbanist pioneers Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk somewhat ironically is 98th, or third-last, on the list. I say "somewhat" because no doubt the percentage of elderly residents influences its low walkability. But come on, Miami, 98th?

The rest of the bottom five list sends a few shivers down urban planners' spines:
100. Newark, NJ: Has a high crime rate, few parks, and few people who take mass transit—as well as the third smallest percentage of people who walk for exercise.
99. Laredo, TX: Poor air quality and the least amount of people taking mass transit.
98. Miami, FL: The fifth highest crime rate may explain why very few people walk for health.
97. Hialeah, FL: Very few parks and schools per square mile and had the second to last number of people who walk for health.
96. Detroit, MI: With a high rate of pedestrian fatalities and high crime rates, is it any wonder Motor City had the smallest percentage of people who walk for health?
The crime rate--walkability causality goes both ways. High crime rates tend to discourage walking, for obvious reasons, but the contrapositive is also true: more walkable communities tend to have less crime. It's harder to get away with a crime when there are a lot of people walking around; the criminal's ideal setting is a dark, unpopulated street.

Madison's walkability no doubt contributes to its "friendliest city in the Midwest" ranking by Midwest Living in 2003.
Madison is no stranger to No. 1 rankings. People still talk about Money Magazine naming it the best place to live in 1998, although that ranking dropped to 53rd last year. Outside Magazine named it the best road biking city in August, and other high rankings have come for its being vegetarian-friendly, gay-friendly, environmentally friendly, and, well, according to Midwest Living in 2003, the overall friendliest city in the Midwest.

[snip]

Even with 40,000 students mostly walking to and from class — and bars at night — Madison has a remarkable bike trail system, with more than 30 miles of trails and 110 miles of bike lanes even on the busiest of streets. Not to mention the 6,000 acres of parkland. [AP article]
Here's the APMA's complete top ten list:
Top 10 Best Fitness-Walking Cities of 2007:

1. Madison, WI: Adopted a walker-friendly plan 10 years ago, and it shows.
2. Austin, TX: 50 trails, from a quarter to 10 miles long.
3. San Francisco, CA: The most parks per square mile.
4. Charlotte, NC: 40% of its residents walk for exercise.
5. Seattle, WA: Gorgeous views of Puget Sound and snowcapped mountains.
6. Henderson, NV: With an average yearly rainfall of 4.5 inches, you can walk every day.
7. San Diego, CA: A unique choice of beach, desert and mountain routes.
8. San Jose, CA: Perfect walking weather; average temp 61 degrees and low humidity.
9. Chandler, AZ: 6.5 miles of traffic-free walking on its Paseo Trail.
10. Virginia Beach, VA: A low crime rate and a boardwalk allow safe, fun strolling.
Austin may properly be called the "Madison of the South," and no doubt UT plays a similar role there as UW does for Madison. Henderson, San Jose, and Virginia Beach probably win on weather alone.

Which brings up a major flaw with this list: such factors as weather (which makes Madison's ranking all the more impressive) and athletic shoe sales say little about how walkable the community actually is. (I bet you there are tons of athletic shoe sales in the big box supercenters in Blaine, Minnesota, a sprawling Twin Cities exurb known for its gigantic athletic complex.)

That explains why a city like Las Vegas, which is about as walkable as the surface of Venus, reached #15 on the final rankings (PDF). Even on the Strip, where, of course, there are always a lot of people walking, you can't even cross a cross-street on the ground level. You are ushered up an elevator, across a skywalk, and down again to the other side.

The fact that Colorado Springs (13) is ahead of both Minneapolis (32) and St. Paul (26) is a joke. And Wichita (38) edging out New York (39)? Anchorage (18) beating Portland, OR (19)? The fact that Anchorage is in the top 20, much less the top 90, shows that this survey really doesn't get at the holistic concept of "walkable community." The Tony Knowles Coastal Trail notwithstanding, Anchorage, like Fairbanks, is a poster boy for auto-sprawl.

Actual walkable cities (Madison, Austin, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland) can do well on this list, and some walker-unfriendly cities are indeed ranked low (Newark, Miami, Detroit, Toledo, Tuscon, St. Petersburg, Oklahoma City, Houston, Tulsa) but other walker-unfriendly urban areas (Colorado Springs, Anchorage, Las Vegas, Phoenix (!), Reno) seem to be able to crack this list's top ranks just as easily as walkable communities. So this list has some use to it, but don't take every ranking at face value.