Friday, April 8, 2011

Trolleybus open house rescheduled

The trolleybus open house that I mentioned in the previous post has been rescheduled to April 27th.  I still won't be able to make it, so I'm still looking for a correspondent to write about.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Trolleybus study for Seattle

Update: the open house has been rescheduled to Wednesday April 27th (see below for details)

Here in Seattle, King County Metro is deciding whether to keep running trolley busses or replace them all with diesels. The current fleet, which serves 14 mostly high-frequency routes, is nearing the end of its useful life and the first replacement busses will probably be ordered next year. They may be replaced with diesel-electric hybrid busses (like the newer ones in the current fleet), or modern trolley busses like the model Vancouver's TransLink uses, which can run at least a few blocks off the wire, making them a lot more flexible than the current fleet.

On purely financial grounds, the decision depends on assumptions about the price of diesel. Trolley busses are more expensive to buy, and the network of overhead wires has some maintenance costs of its own, but plausible increases in the price of gas could make trolley busses cost competitive over their lifetime. The part that's interesting to me, though, is that Metro's evaluation criteria go a lot further, including:
  • Scheduling Efficiencies (trolleys can be badly disrupted by a traffic blockage, but they can also be run more efficiently because they don't need to go back to base to be refueled)
  • Noise
  • Greenhouse Gas Emissions (including from production of the busses)
  • Air Quality (again including from production)
  • Environmental Justice
This week Metro announced that they'll be holding a public meeting to discuss findings so far on Wednesday, April 27th from 5-7pm, at the Plymouth Congregational Church (1217 6th Ave, Seattle 98101).

Request for contributions: I won't be able to make that meeting because I'll be out of town. If anyone is willing to go and write about it for this blog, I'll be much obliged. I'm also interested in hearing from you if a local transit authority where you live[d] has gone through a similar process: what did they decide and why? If you're interested in contributing just email me.

Disclaimer: I have a personal stake in this because my home overlooks a busy bus street, so I'm really hoping that many more routes get turned into trolleys, giving me a quieter house and cleaner air.

Friday, October 8, 2010

London's Lost Rivers

Every Londoner immediately recognises the River Thames on a map or aerial photo—not least because it's in the title sequence of one of Britain's most popular TV shows—but not everyone knows about the many tributaries to the Thames which have been buried over the years. London being a mixture of the Thames's historic floodplain (most of the centre) and rolling hills (most of the suburbs), in a famously rainy part of the world, it has a lot of small rivers. Their historical importance shows up in place names all over town, but many of them are entirely or partly hidden from view.
I've written before about how London has many admirable attributes of a sustainable city entirely by accident, and this is one of the things that would look very different if the Victorian builders of most of London's infrastructure had understood what the consequences would be.  Each section of river that was built over or diverted into a culvert must have seemed like progress: one less inconvenient barrier to cross; one more road passable to carriages.  But the whole is much less than the sum of its parts, and modern Londoners suffer from having lost the flood control that a naturally functioning watershed provides, and want the wildlife habitat and public amenities that they could have if the rivers were restored.
Today there is a significant restoration effort in progress, which has been very encouraging to watch.  When I was in London in June I visited a few interesting sites, and over the coming week or two I'll write about a couple:
Daylighting the River Quaggy in Sutcliffe Park
Some of the surprising places where you can see long-concealed rivers
And some thoughts about similar work going on here in Seattle

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Delhi & the Commonwealth Games 2010

The city of Delhi means many things to many of us especially to the people of India. Our Nation’s capital is the seat of hectic political activity, the gateway to the rest of the country, the land of opportunities, and a transit point for many. Besides, Delhi has an extremely rich and a vibrant past that is substantial in its Old Monuments, which remind us of its heritage that dates back nearly 5,000 years. With its world-class flyovers, five star hotels, multiplexes, Metro Rail and now the newly opened Terminal 3 at the Indira Gandhi international Airport that meet international standards, Delhi has come a long way. Yet it is (with the rest of the India) far from being a perfect blend of the new and the old. While the coming up of MNCs in the city and its adjoining areas has opened channels for upward social mobility thereby producing a fleet of English speaking upper middle-class population, at the same time, they have also significantly widened the gap between the nouveau riches and the hopelessly poor leading to a fairly unstable society. Thus, on the one hand, where there is a world of unprecedented opulence for some, there is, on the other hand, persistent deprivation for many more that has made the narrower view of development (i.e. in terms of GNP, disposable income, industrialization, technological advancements etc.) nearly redundant in view of the inequalities that exist today. As rightly pointed out, development should be seen, as a process of expanding the real freedom that people enjoy, which includes health, education, food, clean drinking water, sanitation facilities, civil and political rights, and other basic rights that let people live with human dignity and self-worth. Anyway, with a lot of contrast that is easily discernable in the city today, Delhi is increasingly becoming the city of thieves and thugs, and of privileged few vs. the increasing percentage of population living below poverty line. The situation is further aggravated by our power-hungry leaders and corrupted politicians, who refuse to step on these shaky grounds, but on which they perhaps still believe they can create a steady economic power. One doesn’t have to wait for the future to see the outcome of this stark dichotomy – it is happening now.

Delhi is less than a week away from hosting the ‘queenly’ Commonwealth Games (CWG) 2010 (akin to Olympics), and the city has already been bombarded with severe criticism, both at home and outside. The reasons cited are varied and many that have been made worse by the frantic last-minute efforts of the Government to get the work done. There have been concerns with regard to hygiene, construction, security and disease in the city among the international community so much so that some high-profile athletes have pulled out from the Games. Even on the domestic front, CWG has not evoked much enthusiasm yet owing to reasons ranging from blatant corruption and massive miss-management of funds to dug-up roads, potholes and construction work that is rampant everywhere in the city at the moment, and will perhaps never even reach fruition. The verdict against the organizing committee and the Indian government seems justified as of now knowing how haphazardly they are working on fixing things at the eleventh-hour when they had close to seven years to plan and systematically execute work towards this fairly prestigious event. To top it all, the locals are made to bear the brunt with those at the lowest rungs of society being most affected. While for the majority of Delhi residents’ life has only got somewhat disturbed, the poorest of the lot have more or less lost their livelihood and homes to the Games wherein they will not even be invited.

Born and raised in Delhi, I was looking forward to this event for which my excitement grew when it was decided that Delhi will host the first ever Green CWG with a green vision, ‘to strive towards reducing carbon footprint and becoming the sustainable development benchmark for multi-disciplinary games in the future. Looking back at the sporadic initiatives that were taken up in the last year or so, one cannot say that the city did not make any progress in the run-up to the Games – new routes for the Metro have been inaugurated that now cover a large part of Delhi; eco-friendly venues have been constructed; tree plantation drives have been carried out; the number of buses running on CNG have been increased, sustainable transportation rallies have been carried out etc. – but surely these efforts were skewed as usual.
The Delhi Metro has an average ridership of 900,000 commuters per day and runs at an operational profit
Image from Wikipedia
Moreover, the games village that has been constructed to house around 7,000 athletes turned the spotlight away from these ‘seemingly’ green initiatives of the city to getting a green signal from some countries for whether they would be a part of the Games. If only Delhi had realized that it is futile to create islands of cleanliness and modernity for the rich, if they are to be surrounded by a sea of poverty, sickness and filth’. I cannot agree more with this statement.

The irony of the whole situation is that while sustainable development and green games were the self-imposed themes for CWG in Delhi, all that the organizing committee has been interested in is to merely keep ‘poverty’ under cover that entailed arresting/forcing the city beggars out of the streets, ousting the migrant workers from the city, prohibiting street vendors/hawkers from carrying out their business that by all means is the only source of livelihood for them, demolishing slum areas in a jiffy, seizing land for the construction of the stadiums, and hiding unimpressive areas from sight with large banners just to give a nice yet totally superficial impression of the city to our honored international visitors. Is that what is duly accomplished in the name of sustainable development and green games? Did the organizing committee not consider it worth their time to understand the vision well enough before embarking on their rather expensive cosmetic surgery? One wonders if this was the intention behind the organizing committee’s grandiose comments on showcasing urban sustainable development during the Games. There are so many questions and so many doubts arising out of what has turned out to be a big disaster for the image of Delhi, which is known to be the capital city of one of the largest democracies in the world. So much for democracy really.

For those interested in and working on sustainability, I’d say that this whole controversy on CWG in Delhi is hinting at a fundamental level problem about which something can be done, and that is, that perhaps there is a lack of understanding (or complete misunderstanding altogether) on important sustainability issues and consequent prioritization of initiatives, funds and efforts, whether out of choice or ignorance. Put differently, it leaves one wondering whether we are all on the same page when we talk about sustainable development and if we really know what the key priorities and levers for success are before launching our local & national level strategies. Over the next few weeks, I will write on the same lines on what I think should have been done in Delhi in retrospect to gear up for the Games. Optimistically speaking, the present state of affairs might have been necessary to serve as a reality check for India to re-orient its thought process and jump on a new learning curve that is better aligned with the development needs specific to the country.

[To exactly know what I am talking about perhaps it’ll be a good idea to look at some pictures of CWG in Delhi -]

- Guest post by Gunita Bajaj

Monday, September 20, 2010

Mapping ethnic diversity

Eric Fisher is at it again - this time he's made some maps to illustrate ethnic diversity in 40 U.S. cities. Here's Seattle:

Race and ethnicity: Seattle
image from Eric Fisher; used under Creative commons license

Each dot represents 25 people - Red is White, Blue is Black, Green is Asian, and Orange is Hispanic. The categories themselves come from the census, because that's the best available data. If you know Seattle reasonably well, there won't be any big surprises in this, but it's a very effective way to visualise the data and it can be interesting comparing other cities.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Community Indicators work in Truckee Meadows, NV

[cross-posted from the main Sustainable Seattle blog]

The Community Indicators Consortium has been hosting a series of webinars about community indicators and performance measures. The overall arc has been about how some local governments have successfully integrated community indicator work into how they measure their own performance, which is of interest to us because we hope to achieve the same with b-Sustainable. I've listened to the first two and would recommend them to anyone else interested in this kind of work; they've also been kind enough to make recordings available online.

Yesterday's was a case study from Truckee Meadows Tomorrow. I took some notes, which reflect my own biases and interests but may be worth sharing:

  • The big impetus for starting their indicator work was a 1990s forecast of enormous population growth for the region - not unlike what PSRC is supposed to be preparing us for here
  • The first round of indicator development was done by giving participants monopoly money to "buy" indicators with, as a way of prioritising the most valued n indicators. Apparently they don't use that procedure any more, but it sounds better to me than the more standard focus groups they've switched to, because it gives the meekest person in the room as much of a voice as the loudest. I'd be interested to hear why they switched.
  • They're down to 33 indicators now, and even with those they have 10 quality-of-life categories that group things together, and they get feedback that the 10 categories are much easier to get a handle on than the 33 indicators.
  • The categories are: Arts & Cultural Vitality - Civic Engagement - Economic Wellbeing - Education & Lifelong Learning - Enrichment - Health & Wellness - Innovation - Land use & Infrastructure - Natural Environment - Public Wellbeing
  • In the past 5 years, they've made a special effort to reach "unusual suspects" - identifying communities not represented in the earlier focus group work and specifically recruiting them to add input.
  • Washoe County uses the QoL indicators to track its own performance.
  • A lot of the work they do on the basis of these indicators is done by partners of the counties - either volunteerism or compacts with companies -
If this sounds interesting to you, I'd strongly recommend downloading the webinar from their site:,cic-webinars-archive,truckee-meadows-tomorrow-and-washoe-county

Monday, August 23, 2010

Improving traffic by removing lights?

Seattle Transit Blog posted something thought-provoking yesterday. Portishead, a small town in the Southwest of England, has run an apparently quite successful experiment with removing traffic lights from a problem intersection.

This isn't something for everywhere to copy. For a start, Portishead's a town of only 22,000 residents, so what works there won't necessarily scale up to a big city. Then there's the relative narrowness of urban British streets, compared with much of the world. It also wasn't an unqualified success for all users - the blind man's comments towards the end of the video are worth listening to. But it's an interesting exercise to think about how differently traffic could be handled, and whether a piece of infrastructure as ubiquitous as the traffic light may be helping us less than we think, because it encourages thoughtless behaviour.