The Big Problem with Letting Small Railroads Haul Oil

The Lac-Mégantic disaster: was it just the brakes?
This post is 52 in the series: The Northwest's Pipeline on Rails

The disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec—where 47 people were killed by a Bakken oil train derailment—is commonly understood to have resulted from a train slipping its brakes and then rolling downhill into town where it crashed disastrously. It was a tragedy, but it should not be considered just a mechanical accident.

In truth, it was a self-reinforcing chain of events and conditions caused by underinvestment, lack of maintenance, and staff cutbacks. And it’s a lesson the Northwest should heed because it illuminates the risks of allowing small regional and short line railroads to pick up unit trains of crude oil from bigger railroads like BNSF and transport them short distances to refineries and terminals. The Northwest is home to at least two small railroads with big oil-by-rail aspirations. One already hauls oil trains several times a week through Portland and small towns in northwest Oregon while the other, plagued by a string of recent derailments, aims to service no fewer than three terminals at the Port of Grays Harbor.

The story from Quebec—of what happened to the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic (MMA) railroad—is the story of a disaster waiting to happen. MMA was a regional railroad assembled in 2002 by a holding company from the assets of bankrupt Iron Road Railways, which owned four small railroads operating in Maine, Vermont, and Quebec. MMA had struggled financially from the start just as its major customers in the forestry industry also struggled. It went through a series of cutbacks to staff and maintenance. Read more »


Living Longer in British Columbia

Longer life spans a sign of better health north of the 49th parallel.
This post is part of the research project: Cascadian Demographics

Life expectancy reached a new high in both British Columbia and in Washington last year. That’s good news, since it means that the residents of both jurisdictions are living longer, healthier lives.

In one way of looking at things, the news comes as no surprise. Lifespans through much of the industrialized world have increased fairly steadily since the end of World War II, so record-breaking years are now more the rule than the exception.

BC vs WA life expectancyBut what’s genuinely interesting is that life expectancy is rising much faster in some places than in others. As of 1980, for example, lifespans in Washington and British Columbia were nearly in a dead heat: 75.1 years for Washington, 75.8 for BC.  Yet since then, BC has pulled ahead. By 2013, lifespans in BC had reached 82.7 years, compared with just 80.4 years in Washington—a gap of 2.3 years, which is wider than at any point since Washington began annual reporting of life expectancy statistics.

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Video: The Thin Green Line

How Northwest will shape the future of the world's energy economy.
This post is 51 in the series: The Northwest's Pipeline on Rails

Last week I gave a talk at Western Washington University about the massive coal, oil, and gas export projects slated for sites throughout the Pacific Northwest. Over the course of about 45 minutes I explored the changes confronting this region, as well as some of the opportunities we have to act as a sort of Thin Green Line standing between fossil fuel deposits and the world’s most voracious energy markets.

Thanks again to the Border Policy Research Institute and Fairhaven College’s World Issues Forum for putting on the event, and thanks to everyone who attended for sharing such insightful questions.

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Weekend Reading 10/3/14

354 times as much; Depression-era photos of your home county; and more.
This post is 174 in the series: Weekend Reading


This InFocus photo collection of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrations is stunning. The ones with the cell phones seem out of some future dystopian political thriller.

And from a very different time, a team of Yale researchers has indexed by county ten years’ worth of Depression-era photographs by government-hired artists. The database is here, and High Country News gives a little more background on the project.


I think Manuel Quinones is one of the best energy reporters in the country, so I’m intrigued by the new book, Turning Carolina Red, that he’s a contributing author to, along with others from Environment & Energy Publishing. It’s a look at the way that the fossil fuel money influenced and then captured state politics in North Carolina. I’ve had the pleasure of talking about Northwest coal and oil exports with the good folks at E&E on several occasions, and I expect their treatment of the subject will be very good.


You may have heard of the “resource curse,” also known as “the paradox of plenty,” which is the observation that regions with abundant natural resources (oil, gold, diamonds, etc.) actually see slower economic development than places where resources are scanty. Apparently, over-specializing in resource extraction can have all sorts of unwanted effects, including undermining the competitiveness of other industries; encouraging the “best and brightest” to fight for a slice of the resource pie, rather than focus on innovation; and subjecting an economy to a disruptive cycle of booms and busts. Read more »


A Fair Share of Streets (Part 1)

Photographic evidence that kids and cars can co-exist.
This post is 10 in the series: Family-Friendly Cities

One takeaway from my last post on Portland’s courtyard housing competition was that it makes little sense to squander large chunks of scarce urban land by designing them exclusively for cars. Parking spaces, driveways, and even low-volume residential streets that sit empty most of the day are simply a waste of valuable real estate in growing cities.

So Portland legalized the shared court—a common area in a residential development where cars can drive through (slowly) to park, but that primarily serves as a place for kids to play, neighbors to eat and socialize, or someone to build a sailboat. The landscaping, unconventional paving materials, and narrow or semi-obstructed pathways clearly say to drivers: “This space is going to have people wandering through it, and it’s your responsibility to drive at a safe speed and not mow them down.”

Yet the idea of encouraging toddlers to ride tricycles or nine-year-olds to play kickball in the same spaces with moving cars can seem, well, wrong. After decades of conditioning children to stay out of the street, always look both ways, never assume that cars will stop, any parent has to wonder how safe that can be. But, in a sense, that just illustrates how skewed Americans’ thinking about streets has become.

Even in the US, there are precedents for people and cars amicably sharing space. In grocery store parking lots or campgrounds, drivers expect to encounter meandering pedestrians, wobbly carts, or children on bikes and adjust their speeds accordingly. But when it comes to building city streets, we’ve almost wholly ceded that territory to cars. As the tweet from Strong Towns below illustrates, we’ve created asphalt corridors that allow cars to drive fast, which essentially means they’re unsafe for any other purpose.

European countries, however, have been designing and retrofitting “shared use”  streets that allow residents—and especially children—to reclaim some of that public space that’s historically been ceded to cars. The Dutch woonerf (pronounced vone-erf) and British home zone have been specifically designed so pedestrians, cyclists, and kids at play can safely share the road with slow-moving cars.

In a true woonerf, there’s no curb or separation between the road and sidewalk. Kids are expressly allowed to play in the street, which have relatively low vehicle volumes to begin with. Traffic calming tools—landscaping, ping pong tables in the right of way, narrowing pinch points, textured surfaces, flower planters, meanders, designated entrances and exits—force cars to slow to somewhere between a walking pace and 15 miles per hour. Early studies in the Netherlands found it didn’t really matter what methods were used, as long as they were spaced closely enough that cars couldn’t physically pick up speed.

The evaluations also found that injury accidents in woonerven dropped by 50 percent, according to a case study from the US Federal Highway Administration.

The shared streets below—from residential neighborhoods in Malmo, Sweden and The Methleys Home Zone in Leeds, UK—allow moms to stroll babies and kids to play soccer or ride tricycles in the middle of the road, while cars weave their way around them.

These examples from in Kevalaer, Germany, and Brighton, UK, blur the distinctions between public plaza and roadway in a more commercial area. This type of shared space concept evolved in response to some of the high costs and lessons learned from early experiments with woonerfs. The idea is that by removing traffic signals, signs, and other conventional markings that assign some parts of the road to cars and others to people, the chaos actually forces drivers to slow down and acknowledge their surroundings rather than carelessly bombing through intersections on autopilot.

Kevalear, Germany, by NACTO
Shared Street, Kevalear Germany by NACTO used under CC BY-NC 2.0

Here in the Northwest, cities have begun experimenting with some elements of shared streets, though few go as far as any commonplace Dutch woonerf. In addition to allowing shared courts in private developments, Portland has rebuilt two blocks of Davis Street through Chinatown as curbless streets that can be closed to vehicles for festivals. South Waterfront eco-distrct plans call for woonerf-like streets that give priority to pedestrians and cyclists.

Eugene, Oregon, has removed curbs and blurred the distinction between people-and-vehicle-spaces with brick paving and other people-friendly features in some of its downtown blocks.

More recently, the Seattle Parks Department led an effort to transform four blocks of Bell Street through downtown into a linear, woonerf-like park.

Bell Street woonerf elements 2

Image by by Jennifer Langston

Redevelopment plans for 8th Avenue North through South Lake Union (see below) have envisioned a residential shared-use street that could accommodate children’s play areas, P-patches, outdoor eating nooks, and space for socializing or walking dogs while still allowing traffic to move through. This week, Vulcan announced concrete plans to create a meandering woonerf through that corridor with outdoor “street rooms” that would put people and cyclists on an equal footing with cars.

Obviously, shared use streets only make sense in certain circumstances. And they differ in design and character, depending on whether you’re talking about a low-volume residential street or a busy intersection in the middle of town. But they can be hard for people in North America to wrap their minds around. They go against the deeply ingrained notion that the safest course is separate people from fast-moving cars and then train everyone to follow signs and signals that attempt to keep that peace. They are also commonly opposed by blind, deaf, and people with other disabilities unless their needs are taken into account.

So in my next post, I’ll look at what we can learn from Europe’s experience with shared use streets and detail more places in the Northwest where they may make sense.


Empowerment Messages, Not Inadequacy

How to win (or lose) the 'Story Wars' (Part II).
This post is part of the research project: Flashcards

Most of the marketing we see (especially commercial advertising) is of the inadequacy variety—messages designed to create anxiety or insecurity about what we lack (beauty, youth, sex-appeal, status). Inadequacy stories rely on our most childish impulses and emotions, jealousy, greed, selfishness, vanity. They cast the product or service being touted as the hero, something people can buy that fills a hole (a hole that the story has convinced us we need to fill).

A far more powerful, memorable, and engaging type of message is what Jonah Sachs, author of Winning the Story Wars, dubs empowerment marketing, stories that emphasize not where we’re deficient, but how we can grow and find personal satisfaction.

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Zoning Part Two: Exclusionary Zoning’s End

Exclusionary zoning is the problem, not the answer.

As we pointed out yesterday, inclusionary zoning (IZ) ordinances—rules that encourage private developers to provide some housing to lower-income tenants at below-market rates—were largely a reaction against “exclusionary zoning” practices that made it hard to build low-cost housing in many municipalities. Starting in the early 1970s, hundreds of cities and towns across the United States began to adopt IZ policies. This raises a key question: how effective have these programs been in boosting the supply of affordable housing, and reversing the legacy of exclusionary zoning?

The truth is that it’s hard to tell, in part because inclusionary zoning programs come in all shapes and sizes. Some IZ programs are mandatory, while others are purely voluntary. Some offer developers incentives to provide low-cost housing, others do not. They differ in the share of new units that developers must produce; the price targets for affordable housing; the length of time that units must remain at below-market rates; and many other details.

This dizzying variety makes it difficult to analyze how IZ programs affect local housing markets. Consequently, much of the formal academic literature on IZ has relied more on theory than on empirical evidence.
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Zoning: Inclusionary v. Exclusionary

To create inclusive housing, end exclusionary zoning practices.

At last count, Seattle ranked as the fastest growing major city in America. The city’s growth has easily outpaced the projections of its decade-old Comprehensive Plan, which foresaw 47,000 new households (as well as 84,000 new jobs) between 2004 and 2024. Between 2005 and 2012 the city added 29,330 net new housing units—roughly 62 percent of its 2024 target in just 7 years.

This rapid growth has stemmed in large part from the city’s relatively robust economy. From March 2013 through March 2014, for example, King County (which includes Seattle) ranked fifth among all US counties in net job growth, trailing only the likes of Los Angeles County and Manhattan.

But the population boom has sent housing prices and rents trending upwards—creating real anxiety among many renters, and fears that Seattle’s housing market will price out residents that once could afford to live in the city.

One city councilmember has described today’s housing market as being in “crisis,” and the mayor has launched a housing affordability advisory committee aiming to make affordability recommendations by next March. (Full disclosure: Sightline Executive Director Alan Durning will serve on it.) Read more »


Weekend Reading 9/26/14

Why women get paid less than men, free-range kids, and more.
This post is 173 in the series: Weekend Reading
Original illustration by Nina Montenegro of


My favorite wrap-up of this week’s UN Climate Summit.

We put this in the Daily—about how Cascadia could become a climate refuge, attracting immigrants from harder hit locales—but have you considered this? The region’s cities all have comprehensive plans that assume certain amounts of population growth then indicate where they expect those people to live. The projections may all be way too low, and unless cities plan to accommodate climate refugees in compact, walkable urban zones, they’ll end up adding to sprawl, and compounding carbon pollution.


My husband read the Felix Salmon article about gender pay gap and came away confused about whether there is really a gender pay gap problem… so I decided to write something clearer about why women get paid less than men. It got long so I broke off two smaller pieces about choices and solutions. That was my weekend…

The Atlantic had a great issue this month. Starting with the implications of everyone living to be 100, followed closely by an argument for quitting at 75. Not euthanasia, just stopping all preventative care at that point and only accepting palliative care. The argument being that your time after that is most likely to be slow, painful, and not fulfilling. This made me think about the only all-nighter I ever pulled—I promptly decided it was a terrible idea. I let the task expand to fill the time available, didn’t get much done in the early hours of the morn, and the next day was sort of shot. Throughout law school I set myself a hard bedtime of 10pm, and I was much more productive because I knew I had to get it done. Would setting myself a life deadline of 75 make me take more advantage of the time I have?  Read more »

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Marching Forward Against Climate Change

How to make good decisions when you can't predict the future.
This post is 15 in the series: Cashing In Our Carbon

The day before the People’s Climate March, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published an opinion piece by Steven Koonin titled: “Climate Science is Not Settled.” The title conforms to the merchants of doubt’s strategy of sowing doubt and confusion, but it is not even an accurate summary of the article. The article actually affirms that the main things almost everybody thinks of when they hear “climate science”—whether climate change is happening and whether it is caused by people—are quite settled.

Interestingly, next to the climate article was Robert Sapolsky’s always-excellent column, which this week was about insect decision-making. Apparently, a solo ant can efficiently make easy decisions, but hard decisions are better when made with the wisdom of the ant crowd. Bees faced with an unclear decision are indecisive and may refuse to decide at all. The climate article with its muddled message about how to decide to act, the WSJ’s mismatched headline peddling confusion and indecision, and the day of marches all over the world demanding that decision-makers take immediate action on climate—the conjunction of these things made me think about how we humans decide. Sometimes our stellar ability to collect and share information seems to trip us up instead of help us move forward. But I remain hopeful that we can be better deciders, like ants, not like bees.

My hope is not unfounded: countries around the world and 10 US states have already bypassed indecision, and Oregon and Washington are poised to take action. This weekend hundreds of thousands of climate marchers around the world, including thousands in Portland and Seattle, showed the people’s growing power to overcome the merchants of doubt’s poisonous whisperings.

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