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Friday, September 30, 2005

Out of Your Car and on to a Bike

Out of Your Car and on to a Bike—at Your Peril!

Seattle just commissioned a study to examine what makes walking attractive to neighborhood residents. The authors of the study wanted to take a scientific approach in determining what makes neighborhoods healthy and livable. They began with a study of the driving habits of Americans and found that for every 30 minutes you spend in your car every day you have a 3% increase in the likelihood that you will suffer from obesity—a good reason to get people out of cars. The flip side of this equation is that for every kilometer walked per day, the likelihood of being overweight was driven down by 4.8%.

In another study comparing walking and bike riding in the Netherlands and Germany to the United States, it was found that in the U.S., 41% of all trips in 2001 were shorter than 2 miles, and 28% were shorter than 1 mile. Bicycling can easily cover distances of up to 2 miles, and most people can walk at least a mile, yet Americans use their cars for 66% of all trips up to a mile long and for 89% of all trips between 1 and 2 miles long. While cycling is almost nonexistent among the American elderly (+75), it accounts for a fourth of all trips made by the Dutch elderly and for 7% of trips made by German geezers.

There is a considerable safety factor involved. Per kilometer and per trip walked, American pedestrians are roughly 3 times more likely to get killed than Germans and over 6 times more likely than Dutch pedestrians. Per kilometer and per trip cycled, American bicyclists are twice as likely to get killed as Germans and over 3 times as likely as Dutch cyclists.

Another major factor in Americans’ reluctance to embrace walking and cycling is the degree to which we subsidize automobiles. Cars are much cheaper to own and operate here than in any Western European country. Parking is almost always free and overly abundant although this is not so true of downtown neighborhoods—and that’s why people walk.
In the Seattle study conducted by the Canadian urban planner, Larry Franck, it found that neighborhoods that provide a variety of shops encourage residents to walk more. I decided to do an informal survey of my own to find out which areas of Seattle are the most inviting for cyclists.

In my neighborhood in the lower Queen Anne district of the downtown area, there aren’t as many people on bikes as you see elsewhere in the city. I think this has a lot to do with the density of this section of Seattle. Distances are fairly short for just about all of your needs, so people tend to just walk to stores, restaurants, theaters, and everywhere else they need to go. It is just a testament to my own laziness that I actually ride my bike the three blocks to my gym or the coffee shop.

To get to the Freemont neighborhood from where I live I have to tack south along the 2nd Avenue bike lane to Battery Street, turn left, and make my way to Dexter. This takes some backtracking but a more direct route involves too many confrontations with automobiles. There is another bike lane on Dexter beginning at Denny Street and runs across the Freemont Bridge to 34th Street. From here you can take a right or a left on to the Burke-Gilman Trail.

Almost everyone in Freemont seems to ride bikes. Every bike rack in the neighborhood is full, and on this beautiful day the roadways were full cyclists. In my casual survey I saw more people on bikes here than in any other area of Seattle.

There aren’t a lot of high-rise apartments in this part of town so trip distances make biking preferable to walking. Instead of three blocks from your high-rise apartment to the grocery store, you have a six block hike from your single family home. Freemont also has the reputation of being a fairly hippie part of Seattle which may further explain the abundance of two wheelers. In addition, Freemont lies adjacent to the Burke-Gilman Trail which is a haven for local cyclists. This makes Freemont an easy destination for anyone living near the trail from Ballard, the University district, and into the suburbs on the east side of Lake Washington.

From Freemont, I rode the Burke-Gilman to Ballard where the trail ends and runs perilously perpendicular to a set of railroad tracks. To get to Old Ballard you must proceed along a busy street with a narrow shoulder. The city needs to do a little work to make this section of road a better place to ride a bike. Ballard Avenue is a pleasant place to ride and there are plenty of cool shops and restaurants along the way although there aren’t nearly enough bike racks. If you want to attract cyclists, bike racks are every bit as important as automobile parking is for motorists.

Seattle’s downtown isn’t nearly as bike-friendly as Portland. There is only the 2nd Avenue bike lane, everywhere else bikes must share the road with drivers—something that rarely occurs on Dutch streets where dedicated bike lanes are almost everywhere. In downtown Seattle you don’t see a lot of cyclists other than the kamikaze bike messenger crowd who aren’t easily intimidated by automobile traffic. You see very few bike commuters and no elderly cyclists. The safety of cyclists seems hardly to have been considered when designing downtown transit options.

The advantages of encouraging people to walk or bike instead of drive are numerous. It saves gas and increases fitness. The social advantage also seems obvious. What would you prefer, a strip mall or neighborhood shops? There are a lot of design considerations for promoting walking and biking, but the main one is safety. The areas of the city where bikes are protected from automobiles are areas where cycling thrives. A simple solution to making cycling safer is to slow car traffic down considerably wherever it intersects with bikes. For every 10 mph increase in car speed, pedestrian survivability rates plummet for accidents.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

A War We Can Win

Cut car trips! That’s the word from President Bush in response to skyrocketing fuels costs and damaged production facilities. As lame, ineffectual, and small as this statement from the White House may be, it is a huge step for Republicans who have heretofore seen the energy crisis as simply a matter of a need to constantly increase supply.


“Go ahead, buy the Hummer. We can just tap the ANWAR to fill your tank.” Conservation was strictly for hippies and eco-terrorists. Rising gas prices have fueled support for a repeal of the Washington State gas tax increase. If rising prices are what it takes to get Republicans to mention conservation, then let’s increase the gas tax another dollar a gallon. If $3 a gallon get people to cut down on car trips, let’s make gas $7 a gallon like in Britain and see if people will reconsider taking the bus once in a while. 


I can’t remember whether of not I mentioned this here before, but I got into a political argument a few weeks ago in bar. I was talking to a couple of thirty-something southern guys visiting Seattle on a business trip. These two had both gone to good, private southern universities, they had good jobs, and they were the two biggest morons I have come across in Seattle. Their far-right political views went beyond fascism (and I don’t throw that word around carelessly).


I am not exaggerating when I say that I would have few qualms about bearing arms against these two rednecks if we had another civil war in this country. My point is that things have come to this sort of extreme in this country. The political gulf between conservatives and progressives is almost unbridgeable at this time. We can either drift farther apart, or we can decide that we should be one country instead of two. I think what this nation desperately needs is a national consensus on one single issue.


The Republicans would have liked for that issue to have been the war in Iraq, but too many of us knew from the beginning that the war would prove to be a disaster for the United States. Our war should be against fuel consumption. The technology is already available for cars that get 80 mpg and for trains that go 200+ mph. Let’s make it a national priority. Let’s lead the world in conservation and alternative, renewable energy sources.


Let’s forget this red state/blue state bullshit and work together towards a common goal of making America energy independent and ecologically viable. We desperately need to ask every American to make a sacrifice for the good of all of us, instead of just telling everyone to pursue their own selfish interests and screw the common weal.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

CEOs in Prison

It looks like the American criminal justice system has finally grown a set of balls big enough to put away corporate shit heels for some seriously long stretches. Fuck the pathetic little fines, screw the probation, it’s time to do 25 years, you arrogant, thieving pieces of shit. I’m sure all of these clowns were of the “Failure is not an option” and “either lead, follow, or get the fuck out of my way” school of tough-talking corporate big shots. I’ll bet my entire stock portfolio that this Kozlowski guy will be tea-bagging some big con for a cigarette within five minutes after his cell door closes on him.

I hope that Kenneth Lay is using all of his pretrial time to practice sticking progressively larger items in his rectum, because their won’t be any time for practice once he goes off to jail. I hope the cons develop some new and improved form of sodomy and name it “Enron.”

I’m sure these CEOs were all good law and order Republicans. You also know that all of these turds were on board for the “three strikes and you’re out” laws wherein some pathetic illegal alien goes to jail for life for stealing a couple Disney videos from K-mart because he had two prior convictions. True story.

They probably applauded every time they read about some miserable fuck going to prison for 10-20 years for selling drugs. Call me a hippie but I think that it is worse to fleece your own employees out of their retirement savings than to sell someone some weed. Ironically, there are probably a bunch of people contemplating a career in the dope dealing industry to finance their penniless retirement, thanks to their bosses looting the company.

Guys, now it’s your turn to fill a prison bunk for at least the better part of a decade. No Michael Milken-type six month stretches at the health club for Republican felons. I only wish that these criminals could serve time in the hard federal prisons where they send drug dealers. You have to believe that hard time would serve as a deterrent to future CEOs who are thinking of making a mess of the company they are running.

The sad thing is that there are thousands of slightly lesser villains out there who fleeced their stockholders and it was all perfectly legal—barely. The sad thing is that all of this investment could have gone to further America’s standing in the world of technology and communications, but instead went into the pockets of a few hyper-greedy thugs. Just think about those $5,000 shower curtains and the multi-million dollar birthday parties for your whore wife while you sit in prison.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Myths, Lies, and Propaganda Vs. Science

For many years when people said “autistic” I thought they were saying “artistic.” Those were very confusing times for me and I met with many blank stares when I attempted to enter into those conversations. I didn’t know the difference between “empathy” and “sympathy.” I’m sure that people laughed at me openly; there certainly must have been a lot of talk behind my back, but I was blissful in my ignorance. I started looking up words in the dictionary and now I have a fairly good grasp of English, which allows me the time to make a fool of myself in other languages.

I have often written of my shortcomings in the area of technology. My knowledge of computers is Forest Gumpian, Rain Man-esque, I Am Sam-sonian, Sling Blade-like, and—not to leave out the fine film starring Cuba Gooding Junior—Retardio. Nope, there isn’t much concerning computers about which I couldn’t learn something new.

When I am watching Jeopardy, the natural sciences aren’t exactly my strong suit either. What I’m trying to say is that I’m not the smartest guy on the planet, but even I am not stupid enough to believe in creationism or intelligent design. How big of a fucking dope would you have to be to believe in that crap?

I thought that America had finally clubbed all of the creationists to death a decade ago and moved on, intellectually speaking. To treat creationism as something serious is just too silly to consider. I’m not ashamed of my great-grandfather’s ignominious exile from France a century ago so I am not embarrassed by the fact that man evolved from apes millions of years in the past.

Intelligent design seems to be simply a public relations gimmick courtesy of the fatuous Discovery Institute. I don’t see what motivates the folks at the Discovery Institute except the desire to keep people ignorant and fearful of science. I hate it when people refer to propaganda centers like the Discovery Institute as “think tanks.” These places are not about thinking, they are about trying to foster support for conclusions already agreed upon by the sponsors. Universities are “think tanks,” and almost every single scientist in every single accredited university accepts evolution.

A lot of corporate-sponsored “think tanks” are fairly transparent in their motivations. An institute funded by the oil companies will lampoon global warming and deride the work of conservation groups because these get in the way of the oil companies’ bottom line. But why would corporations fund phony research to create a load of shit like intelligent design? Where is the money? Whose bottom line is being threatened by evolution? About the only thing that I can come up with is that the motivation behind the discovery Institute is to keep people ignorant and to make these ignorant people they create tilt at stupid windmills like this phony “controversy” over evolution.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005


If you don’t have enough irony in your life try ingesting the irony of the last 30 years of conservative anti-government rhetoric. In a nutshell, the University of Chicago school of economics sold America on the idea of reducing the federal government, lowering taxes, and allowing the private sector more control in matters that were once the realm of government. Private industry was said to be more efficient than the public sector. It is tough even to begin a critique of this reasoning as it has more breaches than the New Orleans levees.

I have never understood Americans' disdain for government. Who is the government in a democracy? Have we forgotten the whole “We the People” thing? I suppose it has something to do with America’s almost inherent terror of socialism. Cold War prejudices die hard, socialism wasn’t just an alternative form of governing; it was the enemy. I think it is about time than we become a little more sophisticated about our understanding of the role of government.

Europe had a lot more at stake in the Cold War than America, yet most countries in Western Europe have embraced a fairly healthy dose of socialism in their approach to public services and works. Very little of Europe’s rail network is privatized. Here in America we expect trains to be self-sufficient, although we heavily subsidize roads and airports, so you could say that our interstate highway network is socialized. Government health care is guaranteed across most of Europe, and while they have their problems, they are not on the precipice of a catastrophe as we are with health care in American. In my lifetime, Ireland and Spain have gone from almost third world status to examples of what America should be. Spain’s rail network is an absolute marvel, and Ireland’s commitment to provide all of its citizens the best education possible should have Americans wondering where our system went wrong.

Our almost pathological fear of socialism is ridiculous. Although we don’t call them socialized, we have a socialized military, police forces, and fire prevention. We rely on the aid of our democratically elected government to deal with many issues that the private sector either cannot be trusted with or cannot handle. Public safety and security are two such issues. We would not expect the private sector to provide for our security, so we have created a series of government-controlled defenses. As we are now seeing in New Orleans, these defenses were not adequately maintained and public safety paid the price.

Although the actual hurricane caused considerable damage, most of the destruction in New Orleans was the result of human error. It seems that we took a calculated risk in not providing the sort of flood protection needed for the severest storms. We are taking the same risk with public safety here in Seattle. Everyone knows that the double-decker Alaskan Way viaduct (a structure similar to the San Francisco bridge that pancaked in the 1988 quake) will not survive another major earthquake, yet we will not replace it because it is too expensive. I wonder if local politicians have calculated some sort of macabre formula for not fixing the viaduct. The formula takes into account the acceptable number of deaths in the event of a disaster and the political fallout that will result.

These sorts of infrastructure problems are now rapidly becoming major issues because of the anti-government, anti-tax rhetoric of the past few decades. Conservatives can’t seem to find a single tax they can live with. Washington State recently passed an incredibly modest increase in the gasoline tax to address the issue of crumbling road infrastructure. There is already a call by Republicans to repeal the tax. The price of gas has gone up almost a dollar a gallon this year. A price hike is a sort of corporate tax hike yet I have heard few people calling for a repeal of this tax.

George Bush and the Republicans have campaigned on a platform of streamlining the government to make it more efficient and handing over responsibility to the private sector for many things that were the job of government. With the disaster relief in Louisiana we are witnessing the most incredibly inefficient government in my lifetime. This is a failure of this administration and a bigger failure of the gurus of privatization.

The catastrophe in New Orleans is almost entirely the result of human neglect. Our president is either stupid or lying or probably both when he says that no one could have known that the levees would give way. Like with the Alaskan Way viaduct here in Seattle, everyone knew about the inadequacy of the levees in New Orleans, that they weren’t sufficient to protect the city from a storm of this magnitude.

Every time a politician talks about cutting taxes, you should hear it as cutting services. Tax relief under this administration has meant relieving the ultra-rich of any responsibility to contribute to the well-being of our society. These tax breaks were supposed to cut through the inefficiency of the government to free up resources for the private sector. There is plenty of evidence that the wealthiest 1% of Americans has seen a dramatic rise in their incomes, the legions of our poor increase dramatically every year, and vital public works projects go under-funded.

The question is what will be the next catastrophe to befall this nation. I would say that our health care industry is in worse shape than the New Orleans levees or the Alaskan Way viaduct. Everyone knows that a disaster is on the horizon, yet we do absolutely nothing. Public education is in pretty bad shape as far as many inner-city areas are concerned. The ever-increasing number of poor Americans may soon be a major issue of national security. Our trade imbalance with China seems to be the concern of most American economists. This nation’s almost complete reliance on the automobile and our insistence in driving inefficient vehicles will almost certainly come back to bite us on the ass in the very near future.

I don’t often offer up answers to problems as I feel we have too many people with all the answers but asking the wrong questions. What I propose is that the leadership in this country begin asking Americans for something in the way of personal sacrifice to come to grips with some of these huge problems. We are fighting a disastrous war in Iraq and never once has Bush called on the American people to make a sacrifice. Most people don’t give a shit about Iraq because they aren’t effected, even indirectly. The war is being fought by “volunteers” so why should middle and upper class Americans worry? In fact, the war is mostly being fought by economic conscripts who have little else in the way of opportunity.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

CNN Watch

A friend of mine recently pointed this out to me and now I, too, notice it all the time. When you watch CNN notice how many times the reporters (and I use that word loosely) use the word “literally” inappropriately. I’m not the sort of person who flies off the handle about these petty linguistic grievances because I’m far from fluent in English.

 One reporter said that downtown New Orleans was “literally a ghost town.” My God, as if the flooding wasn’t enough, now we have zombies roaming the streets. Another knucklehead said, “People were literally jumping out of second story windows.” While this is correct, it’s not really necessary and the guy really just wants to say the word. Same with this reporter: “The storm literally separated the man from his wife.” As opposed to the storm setting an emotional wedge between the couple?

 I watched CNN at the gym for about twenty minutes yesterday and I literally heard the word “literally” misused three times. I would guess that the reporters feel that the word makes them sound smart but all that it does is rob the sentence of all rhetorical strength. Literally doesn’t literally have to mean literally, but it just sounds like a word people with poor vocabularies use to try to impress, like people who use the word “plethora.”

What the hell? If we notice this linguistic laziness why hasn’t someone at CNN noticed it and sent out a memo declaring a moratorium on the word? Perhaps we could turn this into a drinking game where everyone does a shot when someone at CNN uses “literally” in a sentence.