Weekend Reading 2/13/15

Zero-waste inspiration, "my life is worth a piece of pie," and more.
This post is 190 in the series: Weekend Reading


Think living with zero waste is impossible? Check out this 23-year-old New Yorker who has been doing it for the past two years—and is now sharing some of her tips. One takeaway: go stock up on (second-hand) mason jars!


“My life is worth the price of a pie.” That’s how a steelworker describes operations at the same Northwest refineries that aspire to become major players in oil-by-rail. And that’s why he’s on strike.

This video of a train plowing through deep snow is weirdly riveting and beautiful—right up until you realize that it’s an oil train and traveling fast in potentially hazardous conditions.


For all you environmentally conscious high school and undergrad students in Washington, the UW School of Environmental and Forest Sciences is hosting a climate change video contest! For the contest, students are asked the question: What does climate change mean to you? Read more »

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Seattle’s Vision Zero Plan

"We should not accept death as a byproduct of commuting."
This post is 22 in the series: Family-Friendly Cities

Seattle became the second major Northwest city this week to promise to end all traffic deaths and serious injuries by embracing Vision Zero, a transportation approach that prioritizes keeping people alive and building streets that work for everyone.

The biggest changes for the next year are: Reduce downtown speed limits by 5 mph to 25 mph, improve 10 downtown intersections to benefit people walking, create slow “20 mph zones” in 5-10 neighborhoods where too many crashes happen, lower speeds on a dozen city arterials to 30 mph or below, improve the city’s most dangerous corridors, add 12 cameras to catch school zone speeders, add nearly 20 miles of safer bikeways, build 14 blocks of new sidewalks, and improve street crossings in 40 locations.

The city’s long-term goal is to eliminate all traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030, in part by using data to drive investments and enforcement efforts to where they’re needed most.

“We should not accept death as a byproduct of commuting. It’s time to slow down to the speed of life.”—Seattle’s Vision Zero Plan

Vision Zero holds that people driving, people walking, people biking, people driving trucks, people using wheelchairs on our streets will all, from time to time, make mistakes. And that cities should design roadways so that those groups of people don’t come into conflict as often, and when they do, the consequences shouldn’t be fatal.

Seattle is actually one of the safest US cities, with a traffic fatality rate (3.2 per 100,000 people) rivaling Sweden’s (3 per 100,000), where Vision Zero was born. But city officials, who see the aftermath of downtown traffic fatalities from their office windows, acknowledged Thursday that Seattle ought to do better.

In recent months, a 7-year-old girl was hit in a crosswalk and left for dead, cars have plowed into a coffeeshop and hair salon, a 52-year-old man was killed in a crosswalk next to a library and preschool, and a new mom lost her life in a downtown bike lane. Even Seattle Mayor Ed Murray had a personal experience to share.

When he was 14, Murray was hit by a car while riding his bike in a neighborhood south of Seattle. He said the collision sent him to the hospital, left him unable to walk for six months, and had consequences that last to this day. While that’s not the main reason he wanted to pursue Vision Zero, Murray said, it illustrates the point:

If that car had been going 20 miles per hour, I would not have been thrown from my bike across someone’s yard. More importantly than me being injured, I remember the anguish my parents went through at the hospital week after week after week. This is what this is about. Twenty miles per hour can make a difference.

As the charts below show, between 150 and 300 people have been killed or seriously injured in recent years on Seattle’s roads, and people walking, people biking, and people on motorcycles fare worse in those collisions than people in cars. Traffic collisions are a leading cause of death for Seattle’s kids and young adults between ages 5 and 24. And people older than 50 have accounted for 70 percent of pedestrian fatalities in the last three years.

Seattle traffic collision statistics

Image by City of Seattle, Vision Zero Plan

So here’s a closer look at how the city plans to get those numbers to zero. (For a map of all the following projects, see page 15 of the city’s Vision Zero plan.)

Downtown and Urban Center Changes

Most pedestrian collisions happen in downtown Seattle, where more than 600 people walking have been hit by cars in the last three years. Collisions in the Central Business District have become more severe recently, largely due to speeding.

That’s why the city plans to lower speeds throughout downtown Seattle from 30 mph to 25 mph. As the graphic below shows, research has shown that speed has an enormous impact on the likelihood that a person on foot can survive a collision. Half of pedestrians who are hit by a car traveling 30 mph will die.

Pedestrian survival graphic

Image by City of Seattle, Vision Zero Plan

The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) will start with James, Pike, and Pine streets and lower speeds throughout the rest of downtown by the end of the year. In part, that’s because the city needs time to adjust hundreds of downtown traffic signals and make other engineering changes to slow traffic. (For compaison, New York City just lowered speeds to 25 mph citywide.)

SDOT will also make safety improvements at 10 downtown intersections (along Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh avenues) with high crash histories. That includes outlawing right turns on red that create conflicts between cars and people crossing streets, giving people walking extra “lead time” to cross streets and become visible, and offering people biking and driving protected opportunities to turn.

Outside of downtown, the city will undertake similar intersection improvements and traffic calming in several urban centers where people walking, biking, driving, strolling, and riding transit all merge: Lake City at NE 125th Street and Lake City Way NE, White Center/Westwood at SW Roxbury Street and Delridge Way/16th Ave SW, and Columbia City and Hillman City on Rainier Ave S.

Citywide Changes

Speed vs Travel Time Change

Image by City of Seattle, Vision Zero Plan

Because 90 percent of Seattle’s serious and fatal crashes occur on busy arterial streets, the city plans to review and lower speed limits to 30 mph or below (right now, they range from 20 mph to 40 mph) on city arterials.

In the next year, for instance, the Vision Zero plan commits to lowering speeds—by reducing limits, using radar speed signs, and making engineering changes—on a dozen corridors: Martin Luther King Jr Way S, Rainier Avenue S, 35th Avenue SW, SW Roxbury Street/Olson Place SW, Delridge Way SW, Fauntleroy Way SW, Harbor Avenue SW, Greenwood Avenue N, Holman Road NW, Seaview Ave NW, 5th Avenue NE, and 15th Avenue NE.

The city also hopes to reduce collisions on some of the most dangerous corridors through low-cost engineering, enforcement and education efforts, as well as make improvements for people walking, biking, and taking transit in others. SDOT will update crosswalk policies to emphasize the needs of older and younger residents, address safety problems around ubiquitous construction sites, and begin using more durable and reflective pavement markings across the city.

In 2015, SDOT also plans to follow through on commitments in the city’s Pedestrian and Bicycle Master plans by adding seven miles of protected bike lanes, 12 miles of neighborhood greenways, more than 40 crossing improvements, and 14 blocks of new sidewalks.

In 20 mph school zones where kids are walking or biking to school, the city will add twelve new cameras to catch speeders and use the revenue from tickets to improve infrastructure around schools.

Neighborhood 20mph Zones

Although few fatal accidents occur on neighborhood streets, Vision Zero also aims to create communities where everyone—from unsteady toddlers to 6-year-old bikers to marathon runners to retired walkers—feels safe on the street. That’s why the city plans to implement five to 10 pilot “20 mph zones” in neighborhoods near parks and schools with a high crash history.

Similar projects have been wildly popular with New York City families and residents who want safer, traffic-calmed streets with speed humps, road narrowing, daylighting, and 20mph speed limits. Some want the city to take even more aggressive safety and engineering measures there.

To start, Seattle plans to install signs and pavement markings to clearly tell people driving that they’re in a slow zone and make sure intersections are cleared of obstructions that make it hard to see people in crosswalks.

Education and Enforcement

The other prongs of the Vision Zero plan include education—from rewarding people who follow street rules with gift cards to outreach campaigns to vulnerable groups like teen drivers and older pedestrians—as well as enforcement.

Seattle Police Department plans to incorporate traffic, speed, and collision data to identify areas with the highest enforcement needs, as well as to target risky behavior in high-crash areas. Officers will step up enforcement efforts in places where bicycle collisions frequently occur, as well as educate drivers about the consequences of failing to yield to pedestrians and “blocking the box” in crosswalks.

Seattle has also committed to publishing a Vision Zero report in October of each year, which will track the city’s progress toward achieving zero traffic fatalities and describe efforts for the upcoming year.

So how do the city’s initial efforts stack up? As the mom of a six-year-old, I’ll continue to argue that Seattle could lower speed limits on neighborhood streets to 20 mph citywide without inconveniencing many people (If you’re in that much of a hurry to get somewhere, you shouldn’t be on slower residential streets.) And I hope that’s where we’re headed, soon.

But Seattle’s Vision Zero plan is a reasonable and informed set of first steps. It focuses on the corridors, intersections, and areas where the data tells us things aren’t safe or acceptable. And it sets the city on a promising path to do something about that.

Let’s hope that the city continues its commitment to Vision Zero’s principles—that everyone has a right to be safe in traffic—by using that lens to prioritize projects and allocate funds in the next citywide transportation levy.


Latinos and Republicans Favor Climate Action?

Poll: Time for a reality check when it comes to the politics of US climate action.
Photo Credit: Kevin Coles via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Kevin Coles via Compfight cc

There are at least two misconceptions that have proved tough to shake when it comes to the politics of advancing climate solutions in the US: One is that Latinos don’t prioritize the environment or global warming. The other is that all—or at least most—Republicans are solidly united against climate action.

It’s time for a reality check.

In fact, relative to other American voters, Latinos are actually among the most concerned about the environment, and in particular about global warming.

And despite the fact that 56 percent of Congressional Republicans still deny climate change (and, make no mistake, they are not scientists, BTW), significant numbers of rank and file Republican voters acknowledge the problem and favor climate action.

Recent polling conducted by The New York Times, Stanford University and Resources for the Future further debunks the stereotypes.

Read more »

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Event: NW Fossil Fuel Exports

Eric de Place discusses transport risks of coal, crude oil, and other hazardous material.
This post is part of the research project: Northwest Coal Exports
Train derailment

Lac-Mégantic Derailment by TSBCanada (Used with permission.)

Join our policy director Eric de Place at the downtown Everett Library, to discuss transport risks of coal and crude oil through Snohomish County and other cities in the Northwest.

In response to the increasing amount of public interest in oil transport issues, the community group Snohomish County Train Watch is hosting a series of monthly strategy meetings to address the future of fossil fuel transport projects in the Pacific Northwest. Eric will talk about the risks of fossil fuel transport, including carbon emissions, railway congestion, coal dust, water pollution, and oil train safety. During the second half of the meeting, the group will participate in a strategy session focusing on future activities to avert dangers and to stand up against big energy companies.

  • When: Wednesday, February 25th, 6:00 pm
  • Where: Everett Public Library Auditorium, 2702 Hoyt Ave, Everett, WA (map)
  • Tickets: The event is free and open to the public
  • Host: Snohomish County Train Watch

For more information about the event or press inquiries, contact Steven Liedlich.

Check out the ongoing Sightline series, The Northwest’s Pipeline on Rails, which is a region-wide review of all oil-by-rail projects planned or currently operating in the Pacific Northwest.

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Columbia River Ship Traffic: the Impact of Coal and Oil Plans

Fossil fuel projects could triple the number of vessels.
This post is 7 in the series: The Risk of Northwest Oil Spills

Like the Salish Sea, the Columbia River is threatened by the risks of oil spills. If you need proof of the risk, look no further than the historical record of major spills or the dozens of recent close calls on the river. In fact, the Coast Guard sector responsible for the region that includes Grays Harbor plus the Columbia and Snake Rivers responds to 275 oil pollution incidents in a typical year.

Yet the risk of spills could soon increase dramatically. If they are built, new fossil fuel shipment proposals would result in huge increases to both oil and other petroleum ship movements, as well as to overall large vessel traffic on the Columbia River.

Using the Washington Department of Ecology’s “Vessel Transit and Entry Counts” database, we calculate the average volume of ship and barge traffic over the last decade and compared that to the number of vessel trips that would be induced by newly built and planned fossil fuel sites in the region.

The result? We find that new crude oil and petroleum product facilities could triple the number of tank vessels—tanker ships and tank barges—crossing the Columbia River’s notoriously dangerous bar. Read more »

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Portland’s Vision Zero Plan

20 steps to safer streets.
This post is 21 in the series: Family-Friendly Cities

Last week, I outlined some of the key principles of Vision Zero—an approach to designing streets that prioritizes safety and human life above other considerations. Today, the city of Portland rolled out its Vision Zero commitments, including an ambitious goal of working toward zero traffic deaths and serious injuries within the next decade.

Over the next two years, the city plans to lay the foundation for lowering speed limits on certain types of city streets, identify five new or upgraded neighborhood greenways, improve safety along four high-crash corridors, inventory sidewalk gaps, install a total of 18 flashing crosswalk beacons to help walkers safely cross East Portland streets, study the feasibility of five protected bikeways on busy corridors, install 10 new automated cameras to catch people running red lights, and seek legislative authority to install unmanned radar cameras to ticket speeders (which the city can’t legally do now).

Compared to New York City’s comprehensive Vision Zero rollout last year, Portland’s plan doesn’t feel so ambitious or integrated. But the Portland Bureau of Transportation has struggled with years of budget cuts, and officials said they wanted to craft a two-year work plan that is realistic given the city’s finances. It “outlines approaches and actions that can be taken with existing resources and scaled up as new revenue becomes available,” the city said.

The city also reiterated its goal of having 80 percent of residents live within a 1/2 mile of a low-stress, traffic-calmed, family-friendly street network where people feel safe to walk, bike, play, or socialize without competing with speeding cars.

Although Portland’s traffic fatality rate is among the lowest for large American cities, it hasn’t made much progress in reducing those numbers in the last 20 years. During that time span, an average of 37 Portlanders died in traffic crashes annually. On average, 12 people walking and 2 people biking were killed each year. Read more »

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Sightline Seeks to Daylight Secret Exemptions to Crude Oil Export Ban

Earthjustice, Oil Change International, and Sightline Institute want answers.

For nearly four decades, the US federal government has maintained a “ban” on exporting domestic crude oil supplies. It’s been a cornerstone of the national energy landscape since President Ford signed the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act into law in pursuit of that perpetual goal of American politicians, energy independence.

Although the legal framework includes a number of exceptions—allowing exports of North Slope Alaskan and heavy California crude, as well as exports to Canada, among other loopholes—big oil companies have had the ban in their crosshairs for years. Now, in the midst of a production boom (despite moderate domestic demand), the industry has launched a lobbying assault on federal officials in the hopes of further boosting the payoff for large-scale fracking and drilling. And their efforts appear to be paying off. Read more »


Seattle District Loses Bid for Downtown School

Plus, 3 lessons for not letting it happen again.
This post is 20 in the series: Family-Friendly Cities

Seattle Public Schools officials confirmed this weekend that the district lost its bid to acquire a surplus federal building and turn it into a downtown elementary school. (For more background, see our earlier posts here, here, and here.)

The federal General Services Administration did not immediately disclose who submitted the winning $16 million bid for the former Federal Reserve Bank Building at the corner of Second Avenue and Spring Street, and it’s unclear what plans the new owner has for the building.

Opening a downtown elementary school has been a top priority for downtown advocates and parents, whose children currently have long bus rides to “neighborhood” schools on Capitol Hill or near the Central/International District. Seattle Public Schools had the opportunity to acquire the 90,000-square-foot empty bank building—for free and with little competition—through a federal disposition process that awards surplus buildings to agencies that will put them back into public use within three years.

That three-year timeline spooked school board members, who rejected the option because the district had no renovation funds in its current budget. They decided to try to acquire the building at a public auction, which would have provided additional time and flexibility to line up funding. But it opened the district up to competition from other agencies and private developers, at least one of which had deeper pockets. The district had an upper limit of $5.8 million, officials said Monday, based on the available funds that were included in the last school construction levy for downtown school planning. Read more »


Weekend Reading 2/6/15

The most interesting person in Oregon right now; winning against Tesoro; and more.
This post is 189 in the series: Weekend Reading
Original illustration by Nina Montenegro of ghosttide.com.


Recently-dismissed public official Catherine Mater may be the most interesting person in Oregon right now. After the Governor fired her from her position as chair of the Oregon Transportation Commission, she’s dialed up her criticism of the agency’s use of public money to facilitate coal exports writing, “The real issue surrounding the story is not coal, it’s fraud: the submittal of fraudulent information to a public entity for the purpose of securing public funds.” Lots more here and here.

Oil company Tesoro found itself in even more trouble this week when its union workers went on strike at a number of major refineries around the US. According to this report at Seeking Alpha, Tesoro is actually the top target for workers, owing not just to the company’s dismal safety record but also to its bare-knuckled negotiating tactics.

You know how to tell when you’re winning?

When your opponent—in this case Tesoro and its plans for the nation’s largest oil-by-rail terminal in the Northwest—says that “retreat is not an option.” You can translate that to: we think we might have to retreat.  The company now acknowledges that the site it covets at Vancouver, Washington is unique; if it can’t build there it won’t be able to find another suitable and economical location to ship massive quantities of crude to Pacific markets. It’s a near-perfect illustration of why the thin green line matters.

SerenaOriginal illustration by Nina Montenegro of ghosttide.com.

I recently treated myself to a paper subscription to Orion magazine and am already sure I’ll be renewing for years to come. I was delighted to see in it, too, that Nina Montenegro, the Portland-area artist who generously drew up our weekend reading illustrations (both the rain and sun versions we now swap out seasonally) had a piece featured near the front. If you don’t get the mag, you can see her latest work here, and read more about a past project of hers the magazine wrote on last year.


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Got Policy Solutions? Think: Brownies

A messaging recipe for policy wonks.
This post is part of the research project: Flashcards

We’re policy nerds here. (You may have gathered that.) It means sometimes we know just about every last detail of a particular policy solution. It means we sometimes go a little overboard telling other people about all those details—because we’re excited about the possibilities. (Okay, maybe a lot overboard!)

Most of the other nerds we know do this too. And even quite a few of our non-nerd friends do it. It’s mostly because we are keen on fixing problems.

Of course, knowing the specifics is important for us. We put policy ideas through the wringer for a living. And all the little details are really, majorly, crucial for making any policy work correctly.

But as we’re talking about policy solutions, we sometimes get bogged down in the details. That’s when our audience can miss not only the basics and our enthusiasm, but also the most important thing: The Big Picture.

What people want to know—what they really need to know, in fact—is what good a policy will do and why it matters. In other words, our job is to help them see what it’s going to look like.

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