Off the rails

>> Tuesday, June 08, 2010


Over at Salon, Michael Lind is saying liberals need to get real about energy and transportation, by which he essentially means libs need to give up on rail and renewable energy to focus on highways and slightly-cleaner energy alternatives like nuclear and natural gas.

Okay, so he has a few points mixed in with the crazy and bizarre. For starters, renewable energy sources currently are not adequate to meet American energy needs. Nuclear energy needs to be considered a serious option. Rail is not a magic bullet solution to transportation needs. Making sure that infrastructure is sufficient to address freight and commercial traffic is certainly a legitimate point.

And then there's stuff like:

In addition to building more roads for passenger use as well as freight transportation, we need to build more airports in the U.S. to relieve congestion. Asphalt destined for highway and airport expansion lacks the gee-whiz factor of high-speed bullet trains, but it is much more important to the future of our economy.

More airports? Really?

Air travel is a disaster: it's not practical, it's not economical, passengers have been spoiled by artificially low fares that are not adequate to cover rising expenses and the industry overall appears to be in a state of perpetual collapse. Indeed, among the reasons for looking at high-speed rail as an infrastructure solution is because there's a good case to be made that we have become over-reliant on air travel and that the solution to airport congestion is fewer flights serving priority-freight and those willing and able to pay for a plane ride should actually cost these days. The problem isn't that airport expansion lacks a gee-whiz factor, it's that the gee-whiz-ness of mid-20th Century air travel has turned air travel from something of a luxury or emergency measure into something of an expectation that you ought to be able to fly anywhere, anytime for a few hundred bucks or less.

And expanding highways is a short-term solution with no real pragmatism to it at all; that isn't to say it isn't necessary. However, the fact is that highway expansion and construction projects are massive efforts of labor and expense that typically fail to keep pace with actual transportation demands--by the time a beltway is halfway finished, it's often obsolete, and a highway that's expanded to six lanes almost always seems to be finished in time for everybody to realize that eight are now needed. And whereas a rail-line may prove to have similar limitations, the fact is that one diesel engine car making scheduled runs is going to use a lot less fuel and generate a lot less urban waste than a thousand more cars going to-and-fro every day on the expanded highways.

I don't want to sound like I'm saying highway development isn't needed; the point isn't that highways are and will remain a vital infrastructure component, the point is that a system that was designed for moving military hardware and freight has morphed into an excuse for individual bad behavior. And let's be clear on this, as well: while Lind may criticize or dismiss "urbanists, who despise suburbs," humans dispersing themselves into sprawling communities that make poor use of resources is a bad behavior for a culture or species. Urbanists are right to despise the suburbs: land that could be used for agriculture, recreation or conservation are converted to a parody of "rural" living; existing urban infrastructure is discarded with life still left in it and new infrastructure devoted to the needs of the aspiring suburbanites demanded; existing neighborhoods accede to supply and demand--no longer demanded, they continue to be supplied and therefore decline into poverty or are abandoned altogether to squatters, criminals or the elements; residents of scattered communities must expend more effort and energy--you can specifically read "fuel" here--to get to resources or bring resources to them; to the extent resources are made "locally" available to suburbanites, they tend to be exemplars of the crassest, most mass-market, lowest-common-denominator urges of our era, the Wal-Mart-anchored strip mall. Lind may be right that this isn't something that is going to reverse itself anytime soon--the levee has burst; the question is whether anybody is going to try to put a collective finger in it or just say "fuck it" and take a pickaxe to whatever's left of the damn thing as Lind seems to be suggesting.

I, for one, have no problem telling suburbanites they need to stop driving their goddamn cars and start taking the goddamn train we're going to give them so they can pool their transportation needs x-times-per-day instead of trickling in and out of their farwaway-so-close crypto-shires, or if they want to keep doing the latter they can live with a two-lane highway unless they want to pay for something wider with tollbooths. (An option I'm happy to entertain, though wouldn't I prefer their SUVs were hybrids or electrics while we're talking about this?)

Lind's writing on energy is similarly dodgy. I'll say again that I'm a pro-nuclear liberal; there are relatively safe nuclear options out there (I remain a fan of pebble bed designs, for instance), but I'm not going to put the gloss on it Lind does. Mining fissile materials is ugly, toxic, environmentally-unkind work using present technology and probably will continue to be; Lind doesn't address this at all, but the fact is that the nicest thing you can probably say about uranium mining is that it's not actually worse than what we have to do to get fossil fuels out of the ground. As for the operation of reactors themselves, the best you can say is that a "safe" nuclear reactor design probably isn't much worse than a "safe" fossil fuel electric plant. Even reactor designs in which a meltdown is physically impossible (as in "impossible under the laws of physics") can have Very Bad Things happen to them (e.g. see the criticism section of the Wikipedia entry on PBRs); what has to be said here, however, is that this is an almost-necessary consequence of getting the energy out of matter: a nuclear incident may poison a large chunk of real estate à la Chernobyl, but is it really worse overall than prevalent acid rain, smog and anthropogenic global warming, not to mention nasty incidentals like the current bleeding oil leak in the Gulf Of Mexico?

Of course, everything I've just said about fossil fuels applies to natural gas. It may burn cleaner, but extracting it is ugly and it doesn't burn completely clean, and it's a limited resource, too; fossil fuels will run out in a way that nuclear and renewables simply won't. (Fissile materials are limited, but long-lasting--which is part of the problem with them, actually; renewables are limited, but the limitations are matters of geography, availability, technology and other concerns--not a matter of simply waking up one morning and they're all used up.)

Lind goes on to repeat a facile and limited criticism of solar in his pitch for nuclear and natural gas:

But as Robert Bryce has argued in his important new book, "Power Hungry," anyone who is serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions should support replacing coal in generating electricity with natural gas in the short run and with nuclear energy in the long run. While Bryce thinks that solar energy might play a minor role in the future, he emphasizes that, thanks to laws of physics that technology can never overcome, both solar and wind power require vast amounts of acreage for collection in order to produce meager amounts of energy: "More than 2500 skyscraper-sized wind turbines, spread over 500 miles of terrain, and a passel of natural gas units at 90 percent of wind’s maximum output -- and hundreds of miles of new transmission lines/voltage regulation -- would be required to provide parity with the capacity of a single 1500MW nuclear facility."

There are several major problems with this canard.

First, Bryce and Lind are obviously defining solar solely in terms of contemporary photovoltaic cells. There are a number of limitations with photovoltaic solar as it's currently done; efficiency diminishes as surface area increases (there's math involved that I'm not in a position to grapple with; you'll have to trust me or maybe Dr. Phil can help) and some of the primary materials used in modern solar technology (such as gallium) are potentially scarce resources (there is ongoing debate over whether there is actually a gallium shortage or even crisis), and (a recurring theme!) gallium extraction is a toxic and environmentally problematic industrial process (another recurring theme: even those who believe current gallium reserves are adequate to projected growth concede that ultimate reserves of such materials are finite and limited).

However, "solar" is in fact an umbrella term: a building that is designed, located and built so that windows take advantage of sunlight for winter heating is a passive solar design. A building that uses solar water collectors to provide hot water and warmth at night is also a solar design. A cultural conversion to solar energy is not merely synonymous with putting up photovoltaic farms in the desert and plugging them into the grid, in other words, and pretending that it is is facile to the point of willful stupidity. This is not to say that, for instance, providing tax credits to people who buy new homes where a substantial portion of household hot water is provided by sunlight is a magic bullet that mysteriously solves all energy woes; it is to say that millions of homes with solar water collectors would diminish the reliance on grid power by a notable degree, regardless of whether that grid power is provided by coal plants or some sort of futuristic, yet-to-be-invented fusion device. Ignoring passive solar and solar-water, when those are the primary suggestions and designs offered to homebuilders interested in going "green" isn't even a failure of the imagination, it's a sort of intellectual idiocy.

But a failure of the imagination is the other obvious problem with Bryce and Lind's solar issues. Will a more efficient solar cell be invented tomorrow? Will one of the private space ventures decide the good money is in solar power satellites and ground-based microwave receiving stations to be built over the next two decades? Will some nanomaterials firm invent a solar "housepaint" that makes the power grid nearly redundant in fifty years? These possibilities range from plausible, might see it in Wired next week, to pure SF skylarking, but part of getting onto that path in the first place is to continue to say that solar is a viable, significant, indeed primary option--as opposed to writing it off as lackadaisically as Lind seems to.

They also point up what I think is the major fail in Lind's overall analysis. There are short-term solutions and long-term solutions, and rather than be exclusive of one another, the former needs to be a bridge to the latter. Nuclear fission, which involves a messy and toxic practice of clawing a finite amount of material out of the ground in order to contain its decay in a mostly-safe (fingers crossed) power plant and then figure out a way to dispose of the dangerous byproducts once they're no longer useful as heat-generators is necessarily a short-term solution. Even without a disaster (and personally I think the risk of nuclear accidents has to be treated as an acceptable risk--I am pro-nuke, but certainly not naïve, I hope, to the associated dangers), in the long-term nuclear fission is simply oil all over again: we can't afford the long-term consequences of extraction, we can't afford the long-term effects of byproducts, and regardless, fuel will become more difficult to extract and eventually run out altogether. Similar points can be made concerning Lind's views on transportation: the current sprawl-and-drive is simply not technologically, environmentally, culturally or economically sustainable.

People are hard to move and changes must be incremental for this fact and for other reasons. But the point of switching to hybrid vehicles, building nuclear plants, and other such measures is merely to take stopgap measures while we bring everybody over to a model that isn't going to bury us in our own moral and literal toxins. For Lind to treat the bridge as the thing unto itself and not the bloody bridge is almost as bad as not making the crossing at all.

What you're talking about isn't the future, Lind; the future's over here.


Kevin Wednesday, June 9, 2010 at 2:39:00 AM EDT  

This is Nice blog. The trucking industry involves the transport and distribution of commercial and industrial goods using commercial motor vehicles

Eric Wednesday, June 9, 2010 at 10:05:00 AM EDT  

I was all ready to be flattered, when I realized from the link and your grammar usage that you're probably a 'bot, "Kevin." However, on the off chance you aren't, this is the nearest thing I could find to a Nice blog. I don't own any albums by The Nice, but I do have a couple of Emerson, Lake and Palmer CDs and used to be a pretty big fan of their brand of pretentious, flamboyant, classically-influenced progressive rock. (These days, not as much, though you bet your ass I crank up "Karn Evil 9 (First Impression part 2)" when it comes on the radio--"Welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends....")

Dr. Phil (Physics) Wednesday, June 9, 2010 at 1:06:00 PM EDT  

Dr. Phil here. As for Emerson, Lake & Palmer, I am very partial to Pirates. Especially while on a long road trip. Loud. (grin)

As for solar -- I think that your comments regarding passive solar and window use is spot on. And I was just reading someone who said that there is "no excuse" for all homes not to have solar hot water heaters. There are clearly more ways to use sunlight than just gigantic photovoltaic farms.

We are getting to the point where those photovoltaic sheets are getting affordable. I think that the future is in decentralized use -- solar panels on houses, dumping power onto the grid for peak daytime use. Of course, I've not read up this enough to know about total costs of manufacturing and disposal to know if we want to go down this route, just like the ethanol industry doesn't want to talk about how much oil is used to produce a gallon of ethanol. (grin)

We already have people with a couple of miles of us, here in windy West Michigan, who have small household wind turbines. That and personal solar are clearly investments, but with long-term implications. I like the idea of solar on the house because once installed, it doesn't have any moving parts except perhaps for the switching relays. (grin)

I also think that orbiting solar power stations beaming energy to ground antennas would use less ground square mileage than solar array farms, but there are issues with that technology, too.

Dr. Phil

John the Scientist Saturday, June 12, 2010 at 11:34:00 AM EDT  

I agree with some of what you've said, but disagree with a lot. I think your assumptions based more on a common urban shared bias against suburbanites than facts.

First of all, your assumption that suburbs are a "parody of rural living" is way off base. Lot sizes in most suburbs look like the lots in small towns. Are rural townies living ins a parody of their neighbors on farms? No. Human beings function better with green space, they like to garden (itself a green activity) and psychological stress is lower when you can see a green space that you control. Many of the humans who live like ants in a hive in high rises with nothing to call their own react in lots of different anti-social ways.

People flee to the suburbs to put some distance between themselves and the shitheads who popualte large urban centers.

The last time I lived in a big city, my car was broken into 3 times. The third time I popped out of my second story apartment door to confront the thief, his tool still jammed in my lock. The cops shrugged their shoulders. Pardon the fuck out of me if I don't want my kids to grow up in that kind of atmosphere - I lived in a relatively decent neighborhood next to a really nice neighborhood, but both of those were within walking distance of the Hill District that Hill Street Blues was based on.

Furthermore, urbanists base their biases on flawed reasoning. As CNN put it:

However, while the cities may be internally efficient, the problem doesn't just lie in the stuff that gets consumed within city limits. More often than not the bigger environmental issue lies in how that stuff gets to the city in the first place.

Beijing, for example, receives its water supply from the Yangtze River basin -- 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) away, Treehugger reports, also pointing out that "the oil that provides much of the energy to move resources into and out of cities itself often comes from distant oil fields."

As Treehugger quotes economist Tyler Cowen as saying about New York: "Manhattan sells services ... and in turn draws upon industrial outputs, which of course include steel and glass. It is also no accident that Gary, Indiana, is near Chicago and those rather aesthetically thrilling factories off the New Jersey Turnpike are right outside New York City ... Praising Manhattan is a bit like looking only at the roof of a car and concluding it doesn't burn much gas. Manhattan supports its density only by being surrounded by a broader load of crud."

Added to that, the big box stores you so despise are more efficient than the small neighborhood stores that dot an urban landscape and are served by small, ineficient diesel trucks (more on the efficiency of diesels below).

John the Scientist Saturday, June 12, 2010 at 11:35:00 AM EDT  

When I was under the threat of moving to NY last year, I was looking at living in Westchester County. The average lot size was 0.25 acres. If you think anyone's there to go rural, you're insane. They are there to get away from the shitheadery that is Manhattan and to find a decent, non-overcrowded public school system so that they can avoid $30,000 a year private school tuitions.

I was looking at spots that were close to Metro North stops, and the prices were huge. From those I chose areas that had good public schools. The prices went to astronomical. One horrible effect of forcing reliance on public transit is the effect on middle and low income families who are priced out of proximity to the hubs - the service workers in a community can't even afford to live there. So they live even farther out in White Plains or beyond and drive in because now Metro North trains take forever (I had a 30 minute train ride limit around Manhattan so my commute would be less than 45 minutes so I would not waste time I could spend with the kids, and house prices reflected exactly that ethos - the other nasty thing urban planners enamored of trains do is assign a zero value to people's time). So a large portion of the small shire holders you are pissing on are the hard working service people who would like a bit of yard for their kids in exchange for the sacrifice of a horrific commute.

THAT's a major effect of policy makers' love affair with trains. And suddenly I'm asking who the "we" is in your "they'll take what we give them statement"? Do you understand how totalitarian that sounds?

So lets look at a "we" who was in a position to do something, and a city that's touted as one of the greenest - Portland.

Today, many residents agree that Portland's plan has proved to be a disaster. The region has some of the worst congestion in America.

Why? Because rail rather than bus (and an attendant) forces high growth around the stations, and when that area can't grow anymore, people need to drive to get to the station, and when parking fills up they say "fuck it" and drive to the city. I've participated in that dynamic in NYC - coming to a full train station and being forced to drive into the city which I didn't want to do.

And the rail solution that "green" Portland decided on? Light rail. I keep telling you that a discussion without numbers is a religious one, and here's why: you assume one diesel engine is more efficient than small gasoline ones, and there you are completely wrong. If you look at this chart, you now get an idea of why I disagree with your assumptions. (The car in that chart I assume is based on the 1.5 passenger per car stats from the BTS.

Light rail is hands down the worst mode of transportation in energey efficiency. Why would "green" Portland use it, other than to push their congestion and problems across the river to Vancouver, Washington, pretending, as does NY, that their urban density is not supported by an ugly blob of crud surrounding them? Well, we're back to why I mistrust your "we" again:

Recent scandals in Portland revealed that the main beneficiaries of these rail lines and high-density developments have been a few politically connected contractors and developers.

John the Scientist Saturday, June 12, 2010 at 11:37:00 AM EDT  

The religious notion that rail is better has led to the Galveston light rail fiasco, which stops so often and is so inefficient that it is actually greener to buy a Hummer and drive to Galveston by yourself, than it is to ride their light rail at full capacity.

Let's extend that to High Speed Rail, another darling of policy makers.

I don't think you can accuse George Monbiot of being a right wing shill. Yet:

When construction is taken into account, high speed rail journeys from London to Manchester will produce 60% more carbon than conventional rail and 35% more carbon than car journeys. They will generate only 25% less carbon than plane travel

Longer routes, such as LA to San Fran, require more construction, and fare even worse against air travel. As other have noted, high speed rail makes sense in middle distances (flight times ~1 hour) but not in longer ones. I won't even get into the mass of bad assumptions in your blanket condemnation of air travel except to note that people are paying for what it cost to fly, but since airlines routinely operate on 1% margins and the reason they are a mess is internal bureaucracy, not the economics of the industry. If you look at this pdf you will find that Southwest is operating at a profit (slide #8) and it has forced the rest of the industry to move to more efficiency (slide #23).

Your assumptions about paying also totally ignore the real economics, which is that air travel and routes are driven by the 40 - 50% of seats that business travelers pay (full or greater than full) for, and the rest of the seats are marginal cost, subject to discounting.

As Monbiot has noted, the most efficient use of dollars is a high speed network of intercity buses, with air travel (and yes, with expanded regional airports to relieve congestion)for long hauls.

John the Scientist Saturday, June 12, 2010 at 11:38:00 AM EDT  

Looking at real figures, real BTUs per passenger mile, real infrastructure costs, the real costs of cramming people like rats into a small space, you come up with much less of a differential between urban and suburban, and then you can start to come up with a real solution, which maximizes the green without introducing totalitarian sentiments.

For one thing, they special interests allow the government to subsidize capital expenditures like buses, while the local government pays for the drivers (and their considerable benefits, including an insane pension scheme for people who retire at 50). reversing that subsidy would promote smaller, more efficient busses (there is a point of diminishing returns of diesel efficiency, electric is better at mid-size, too), and those routes can penetrate farther into the surrounding areas without running empty - you can't compare the BTUs per passenger when full, when most busses and trains run empty on their return journeys. I first ran into this paradox of smaller is more efficient when I worked on a project for a company that designed software for schoolbus routing. Smaller, shorter routes were better, but because the limiting factor was drivers, we waste money on huge school busses.

From the numbers I’ve crunched so far, the greenest solution is to reverse the trend for centralization. I currently work for a boss in Atlanta, my other team members are spread around the country, and we get the job done. Why should we all have to sit in NY? Because the old fashioned attitude that everyone’s got to be in the same place is still there, left over from when we all worked in factories. Moving stuff to mid-sized cities doesn’t fir the urbanite’s wet dream of everyone working in a NY-like metropolis, but from a sustainability (a city that is small enough to be largely supplied by the immediately surrounding farmland), public health (communicalble disease – I got the flu twice theyear I was commuiting, didn’t get it at the year before or this year) and a disaster planning (either 9/11 or Katrina-like) standpoint, being more spread in population out is better. Washington’s a great case in point,. Every government director ahs to show his dick is bigger by the size and proximity of his staff. Why isn’t Agriculture located in Kansas City, or somewhere else where the real farms are? Why isn’t Immigration in Texas? The same reason my company thinks the world revolves around NY. We have the technological means to have a virtual, spread-out workforce (and think of the companies in the WTC or in New Orleans who had to completely rebuild to see what an advantage that is, aside from the green aspects). Our Baby Boomers who are in senior positions just haven’t caught up to that reality yet.

Your attitudes towards suburbanites who are looking for higher quality of life immediately make you their enemy, when a better attitude, combined with small buses on customizable routes using electric vehicles is far greener - and when combined with zoning that allows for one-stop deliveries to larger big box stores, is actually greener than a concentrated urban lifestyle. Just because you don't like the aesthetic of the yuppie bastards who live out there doesn't make them evil. And quite frankly, the consumerist culture I've seen in the New York urbanites is worse and more materialistic than the Westchester suburbs I was looking at, if only because the suburban people had kids and gave up on a lot of conspicuous consumption in favor of saving for college.

I'm actually really disappointed in this post because I look to you for thoughtful, reasoned arguments from the other side, some of which even change my mind. in this case, I've gotta conclude that both you and Lind are talking at least partially out of ignorance.

John the Scientist Saturday, June 12, 2010 at 11:38:00 AM EDT  

Sorry for the broken-up post, 4096 max characters on the comments. :D

Eric Saturday, June 12, 2010 at 12:56:00 PM EDT  

Well, dammit.

I had a lengthier response to a mistake you made, John, but Blogger just ate it. The point of the ghosted comment was essentially that you need to read the Alan Davies blog post you got that chart from again (and anyone looking at it should read the post, too) because it doesn't say quite what you're using it for. In point of fact, Davies points out that there are light rail systems that are more-efficient than the chart suggests (including Portland) and those that are less-efficient (e.g. Galveston). And that there are light-rail systems like San Francisco's that, while less-efficient than passenger automobile, are drawing substantial portions of their energy from non-fossil fuels. (The point of this, of course, being that an energy inefficient light-rail line might still be preferable to fossil-fuel burning cars from an environmental standpoint.)

There's more that I might respond to when I've unpacked your comments, John, but that one irked me because I had to track down the context to see if the chart meant what you were using it for (and I'm not sure it did). But I did also want to make two more quick points:

1) You spend more time talking about light-rail than I did, and there's a reason for that: while I certainly like the idea of light rail and will use it when a spur of Charlotte's system runs past my home, I'm not going to advocate it as a magic bullet. There are probably parts of the country where the more sensible way to handle sprawl is let commuters pay for it by taxing them at the pump and installing tollbooths, for instance, or where other forms of mass-transit are preferable. (Or, if we use that chart in the manner you implied we should, perhaps we should offer enormous tax credits on motorcycle ownership; that was a snarky joke, I apologize... a little.)

(Oh, and speaking of that: Lind was focused on commuter rail and I was responding to Lind--and how does commuter rail fare on the 2009 DOE chart we've been talking about?)

2) Just to be clear: I live in Charlotte and commute thirty-something miles one way to Gastonia to work. Three hundred miles a week isn't that much of a commute, but it certainly isn't helping the globe or the region. Bus service between Charlotte and Gastonia is frankly too early and too late for me to seriously consider it, but if a commuter or light-rail line ran between them I'd almost certainly use it; in the meantime, some of the penalties I'm saying may be appropriate, such as toll roads and higher gas prices, certainly would affect me and not just suburbanites. Sometimes you have to take one for the team.

Eric Saturday, June 12, 2010 at 1:00:00 PM EDT  

Oh, I will add one more thing: I'm hardly going to apologize for my attitude about suburban America. I realize, John, that you have issues with cities: what's that delightful tagline from a blog you sometimes contribute to? Ah, yes: "When it hits the fan, you will be running towards us. And we aren't happy about it." Refugees From The City. Methinks the pot might be saying something about the kettle's hue....

John the Scientist Saturday, June 12, 2010 at 10:37:00 PM EDT  

Eric, exactly my point of posting Monbiot's comments on HSR was to show that, while Portland's light rail looks good on BTUs / trip, the figures they publish neglects the BTUs consumed by construction. (My point in mentioning Galveston aws that I mustrust your "we" to even make the decision they calim they're making, let alone the right one, but it was not to imply that all light rail is that bad on efficiency - I did pick the worst of the worst, there).

I have a feeling that light rail construction enery intensities are a little better than HSR, but HSR is worse than autos by 35%. Does light rail break even with cars at the 1.5 passenger per trip average? I dunno, can't find the data. But as with Portland's other anti-social behavior of pushing it's problems to other areas and then shouting about how green it is, they shifted the costs when a system of hybrid jitenys whose route patterns can be adjusted by customer demand (which is what the compnay I consulted for did for schools) would have been MUCH greener. Portland's corrupt city fathers were hell-bent on forcing their vision on people.

Now that Portland is a major commercial hub, their neglect of highways is casuing congestion problems - you can't ship stuff by light rail. If they had put in, as Monbiot suggests (and I have to say that agreeing with him on so much is disconcerting) a system of electric jitneys, they would have built new roads, and reduced the problem you point out, that those new roads are often not enough once constructed. I can think of lots of ways, from incentibves to punitive costs for parking that Portland could have avoided the light rail trap.

And I think both you and I'd use the jitneys if they were available, and if the schedules could be somewhat tailored with a phone call? They'd kill light rail.

Finally, I'm not begrudging you your prejudices, as you point out I have my own. But you went a bit overboard blaming consumerism on the 'burbs. Maybe Charlotte's different, but NYC in the City is Consumerist Central. My real beef si that you'd use the coercive power of the state to punish them becasue you don't like their lifestyle choice without considering the numbers to make the punishment fit the "crime". I have no doubt high density living is a little better than suburban, but I don't think the difference is as great as the common urbanist perception.

What I see coming in on Metro North, though, is not consumerist, but a souless wasteland topped by razor wire. The people living in the Bronx and Queens areas I ride through have so much razor wire on top of their buildings it looks like they are living in a prison camp. That, and the shithead I had to point a gun at to get him to back away from my car, those are the people I'm not happy about coming my way when the shit hits the fan.

And I'm not totally defending the lifestyle of the 'burbs, either. The thought of moving to Scarsdale with the limousine liberals gave me the screaming heebie jeebies, and bringing tweo half-breed kids would have just been the icing on the cake. Oh, sure they act all multi-cultural and shit, but you see all the Chinese and Indians on one side of toen and let's see what the local reaction would be if a lotta blacks started moving in. But I see why people like me do it - to get away from the razor wire. And we put up with the Jones-keeping idiots and count the days until our indentured servitude ends, and we walk through the snow and the sleet because the bus system sucks and there's maybe 200 parking spots at the Metro North station. Fuck it, you've got me feeling bad for those yuppie bastards. I just thank God every night I could change my job, work from home (and seriously reduce my carbon emissions), and stay truly rural (I live next to a horse farm on one side and a State Game Preserve on the other).

Eric Sunday, June 13, 2010 at 12:58:00 AM EDT  

John, I suspect you're probably atypical when it comes to suburbanites, as you'd probably rather be rural if you could.

The major problem with the 'burbs isn't merely aesthetic (though that doesn't help), it's that the 'burbs are essentially America's taint. Acknowledging that there's a false dichotomy between urban and rural (there are other kinds of regions, such as college towns and coastal towns, that fall into neither category), the 'burbs 't'ain't the city and they 't'ain't the country; what they are, at least to a large degree, is a place for people who hate the city but can't stand to give up what the city offers to live in a place with only one movie theatre, two supermarkets and the best restaurant that isn't a McDonald's closes one-to-three nights a week.

Given that they want the advantages of a city and the advantages of the country without facing the actual or opportunity costs associated with either one, I'd have to call the suburban lifestyle intrinsically parasitic, and I don't see it as a "punishment" to make suburban denizens share the costs their attempt to have/eat cake inflicts on the country-dwellers and city-dwellers on either side of them. At hand is the subject of paying for the infrastructure and environmental costs of their lifestyle, but I'd have to note that (in my part of the country, at least), suburbanites are notorious for trying to benefit from city law enforcement, fire protection and education while bitching relentlessly about any attempts to shift any part of the tax burden to them, however fair.

Suburbanites, by and large, are free riders. Again, John, I realize you'd be happier out in the country and your own suburbanism may be an unhappy compromise between a requirement that you work in a city versus a preference for living in the country, and that you'd be willing to pay the costs of living in the country if you could (indeed, you might not even consider them "costs"). But consider your neighbors, the kind of people they are.

I will be having a helluva week next week (probably start a trial Monday; not sure if it'll go past Tuesday or not), and I think some responses I might to your comments make might be good fodder for a blog post, so I may come back to all of this, it just might not be this week. (I have a fun post already loaded to fire Sunday, and a video filler for Monday, and then the rest of the week may be more videos.) I will go ahead and say that, for the reason I mentioned above, I do find the suburban lifestyle to be more cravenly consumerist; it isn't that people in New York or other cities aren't commercially or materialistically fixated--but along with that they implicitly accept certain costs, be it a greater risk of being crime victims or less exposure to green spaces, just as the small-town or country dweller may be trading greater security for fewer cultural opportunities,* f'r'instance; the suburbanite is trying to skim the benefits without taking any of the risks or paying the costs.


*I feel obligated to note that in the abstract, the current realities are not certainties. There is no reason a city can't have large parks or the country an amphitheater virtually displaying popular entertainments, for instances, although practical reality may mean that neither is an option for either because of historical constraints and past choices. One might say, however, that if one could build a city from scratch (or a countryside), many constraints could be mitigated or avoided.

Indeed, this is the whole point of experimental/theoretical arcologies such as Arcosanti, although Arcosanti remains little more than a tourist attraction after forty years of diddling around with the concepts.

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