Why transit makes headlines in DC but not Northeast Ohio

joe biden rta
joe biden rta

Vice President Joe Biden speaks in front of a GCRTA rapid car during his speech in Cleveland last week (source WCPN).

I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about Northeast Ohio’s transportation issues lately (there’s more where that came from), in part because it seems to be a key entry point into discussions about environmental and social issues in the region.

In the past, when I’ve tried to just engage with like-individuals over environmental issues, it has been a bit more difficult to break through. I’m beginning to think that this may be due to the fact that a lot of the traditional environmentalists in this region are older and less likely to engage through new media. The younger, more social media-savvy activists seem to have found transportation as their cause célèbre, given its salience to the region.

The politics of transportation in Northeast Ohio

Clearly, most of the horrors that have befallen this region – out-migration, urban decay, poverty, racial segregation, declining social capital, loss of status – can all find their roots, at least in part, in the sprawl-based development model that has predominated for the last 60-plus years. Transportation and the political economy around it has emerged as a microcosm of everything that is wrong with the power politics of the region. In my post on the sin tax, I quoted Erick Trickey’s description of how the issue reflected Northeast Ohio’s political fault lines:

The best way to understand most Cleveland political debates isn’t party politics. It’s, do you believe in spending tax money on “public-private partnerships” that draw people and business downtown? Or do you thinks that’s corporate welfare, giveaway of money better spent on other needs? That debate has run through our politics for decades, from tax abatement in the ’80s through Gateway in 1990 through the convention center debate in 2007, to the sin tax rematch yesterday.

Transportation battles in this region, particularly the Opportunity Corridor, shake out along these same lines. The powerful, moneyed interests like the Greater Cleveland Partnership come out in support of major highway projects, and dutiful politicians eventually fall in line. The interests of people living within the City of Cleveland (or Akron or Youngstown or Toledo or Canton…) and the surrounding inner-ring suburbs tend to be drowned out by those of people living in the outer-ring suburbs.

These latter individuals frequently seem to believe (and I apologize for being reductionist here) that they have a God-given right to speed through urban centers as quickly as possible. Despite the fact that the Cleveland-Akron metro area has more freeway miles per capita than all but three other metros and that congestion here is almost nonexistent, the answer always seems to be MOAR HIGHWAYS.

freeway miles per capita

Freeway miles per capita for the top 11 metro areas, as of 2007 (courtesy of next STL).

This rift seems to play out most clearly and acutely in the gulf between how we fund highways and how we fund transit. I’ve already discussed Ohio’s utter lack of interest and seeming repulsion towards funding public transportation in this state. But while I can understand (though not accept) the political and economic realities that produce that imbalance, I cannot understand the sheer indifference that seems to exist within the region towards it. How often does The Plain Dealer or the Columbus Dispatch report on this issue? To quote my classmate John Noel, “Where is the outrage?!”

Cleveland vs. Washington, DC

Compare the way that public transportation is covered here to DC. Not to pick on Adam Serwer here, but if you follow a DC-based journalist like him on Twitter, you’ve no doubt seen that person complain on multiple occasions about issues with the DC Metro (particularly the Red Line). There are multiple blogs and sites dedicated to complaining about WMATA with names that range from Unsuck DC Metro to the NSFW “How Fucked is Metro?” In DC, every delay or malfunctioning escalator (and there’s a lot) is potential fodder for the 6:00 p.m. news.

In Cleveland, you’ll hear a couple of groups and read a handful of blogs discussing the issue. And this is not intended to take away from the important work that groups like Ohioans for Transportation Choice are doing or the solid coverage from sites like Rust Wire and GreenCityBlueLake. But can you imagine people in Cleveland unleashing anything like the cluster bomb of outrage that detonated over road closures during the filming of Captain America about problems with the Rapid or HealthLine? I sure as hell can’t.

The devil is in the demographics

gcrta ridership by year

GCRTA ridership numbers from 1978-2010 (courtesy of Cleveland.com).

So what’s the difference? Well, not surprisingly, I would argue that it largely boils down to the demographics of transit riders in the respective regions. WMATA is a major, viable, primary source of transportation for many people in the DC metro area. WMATA riders compiled nearly 344 million trips in 2012 (PDF), roughly 942,383 per day. Greater Cleveland RTA, the largest transit agency in Ohio, had just 49.2 million total rides last year. At its peak in 1980, that number was 129,691,743. Thanks to the great exodus from our cities, transit ridership fell by two-thirds in just 30 years.

According to a 2010 report (PDF), the median income for Metrobus and Metrorail riders swas $68,110 and $103,800, respectively. Compare that to GCRTA and METRO Akron. In Akron 90% of METRO riders reported making less than $20,000*, while roughly half of GCRTA’s riders have incomes below $25,000.

Obviously this gap reflects the broader income disparity between Northeast Ohio and the DC metro area, but it is still striking. Everyone rides the Metro in DC, from homeless individuals up to and including US Senators. While it’s true that a large number of professionals commute to work on transit in Northeast Ohio, the demographics are clearly skewed.

metro akron household income

Source: METRO Akron (via Jason Segedy)

Moreover, transit riders in Northeast Ohio often have few alternatives. Roughly 90% of METRO riders do not have regular access to a vehicle, while 38% of GCRTA riders say they lack both a driver’s license and a car. Just 19% of Metrobus and an astonishing 2% of Metrorail riders reported living car-free. Lastly, transit users in Northeast Ohio are also far more likely to come from communities of color. Seventy-two percent of GCRTA riders are African-American; compare that to Metrorail, where 76% of riders were White.

This is why transit makes the headlines in DC and remains a peripheral issue, at best, in Northeast Ohio. It’s a lot easier to raise an issue when it directly affects people with agency, power, and a voice. That’s not the case here. People continue to turn a blind eye to the appalling lack of safety and amenities for transit here, because they can just drive past it. We obsess over whether or not turning the West Shoreway into a boulevard will add 60-90 seconds to our commutes, and our representatives locally and in Columbus parrot that view.

Until people here are exposed to transit, it will remain the Other. And no one is going to raise hell to get funding for that.

Jason Segedy provided me with a copy of the METRO RTA On-Board Survey from Fall 2013. All Akron data are from this survey.

Cleveland’s Climate Action Plan marks a good first step, but it can get better

Downtown Cleveland, as seen from the Ohio City Farm (courtesy of the Sustainable City Network).

Downtown Cleveland, as seen from the Ohio City Farm (courtesy of the Sustainable City Network).

On Wednesday and just in time for the Independence Day long weekend, the City of Cleveland Office of Sustainability released its long-awaited (by me, anyways) draft Climate Action Plan. As one would expect with a draft report, the city is welcoming public comments, so I went through the document with a fine-toothed comb yesterday. Here are my major takeaways/comments:

  • Methodology: The report really calls out for a detailed methodology section. Part of sustainability is transparency, and failing to provide a clear picture of how you have reached your conclusions undercuts this goal. This methodology could take many forms, such as a complete section at the start of the report or a shorter section at the beginning with a detailed technical appendix at the end. However it is done, this piece is an essential component. It’s important for people reading and tracking the Climate Action Plan to know what emissions scenario was used, where the temperature and precipitation projections are coming from, and whether a sensitivity analysis was completed. I understand the desire to make this easily approachable to the general public, and I laud that. Perhaps the technical annex would be the better alternative.
  • Methodology Part 2: On page 12 of the draft, the report discusses the costs and benefits of the proposed action plan. However, once again, it demands a methodology for how this cost-benefit analysis was completed (provided one actually was). What were the assumptions and parameters that went into this calculation? What was the discount rate (for a good primer on discount rates, read David Roberts’ piece) used? Did it include a sensitivity analysis?
  • Business As Usual Projections: On page 20, the report describes future projections and how its authors put together the Business As Usual (BAU) baseline that was used. Clearly, as with all medium- to long-term climate plans, these projections carry a high level of uncertainty. The report discusses this issue by saying:

Due to the high level of uncertainty associated with this type of forecasting exercise, a flat line BAU forecast was assumed for now. However, this assumption of no growth or decline in emissions can be adjusted in the future to account for changing conditions.

I have to question the decision to approach uncertainty in this manner, however. It seems to me that the best practice for approaching uncertainty is to internalize that uncertainty and attempt to manage the associated risk. Accordingly, I would prefer to see the flat line forecast used as just one of a few different BAU models. It could constitute a mid-range analysis to be supplemented by low-range (conditions improve significantly in the region) and high-range (conditions significantly deteriorate in the region) analyses.

  • Parking Minimums: In Focus Area 3, Sustainable Mobility, the report notes the City’s desire to “reduce single occupancy vehicle mode share from 69% to 62% by 2020, 55% by 2030.” Logically, one action step noted to address this goal is to “review parking space requirements and prioritize advanced parking strategies.” Unfortunately, the report never directly mentions the issue of minimum parking standards. As Matt Yglesias from Slate has discussed on many occasions, minimum parking standards are a major urban planning boondoggle that waste valuable public space, lower economic production, and reduce tax revenues. Cleveland is considerably overbuilt currently, and our abundance of parking is not something we should be proud of. The city was recently included as one of 16 cities in Streetsblog’s “Parking Madness” competition. We should be lamenting the fact that the Warehouse District has undergone this transformation since the 1970s:
Animated GIF showing the transformation of Cleveland's Warehouse District from a vibrant downtown are in the 1970s to a black hole of surface parking lots currently (courtesy of Streetsblog and Rust Wire).

Animated GIF showing the transformation of Cleveland’s Warehouse District from a vibrant downtown area in the 1970s to a black hole of surface parking lots currently (courtesy of Streetsblog and Rust Wire).

  • Plastic Bags: Page 55 of the Climate Action Plan (part of Focus Area 4: Waste Reduction & Resource Conservation) alludes to the challenge of properly managing plastic bag waste:

An organized and coordinated approach to waste reduction and diversion across the Cleveland community, starting with policies that restrict certain materials, such as plastic bags, or divert others, such as organic waste, are important tools in encouraging waste reduction both at the residential and commercial level.

Interestingly, despite noting the issue, the plan never goes so far as to propose implementing a plastic bag tax. It stops short of this approach, calling instead for implementing an “approach that significantly reduces the use of disposable plastic bags, including a public education campaign.”

While I understand that you don’t want to promote a specific approach without studying alternatives, the Climate Action Plan could have at least suggested conducting a study of the extent of plastic bag waste in our watercourses and landfills. This was the first step Washington, DC took prior to implementing its bag tax. The District’s study found that plastic bags accounted for 21% and more than 40% of total waste in the Anacostia River and its tributaries, respectively. Within just the first five months of its program, which applies a $0.05 tax on bags, DC saw plastic bag waste fall by 60% and raised $2.5 million in revenues. Surely a similar program could help reduce Cleveland’s waste stream and improve its paltry 9.25% recycling rate.

Plastic bag pollution has formed an artificial dam in the Anacostia River.

Plastic bag pollution had formed an artificial dam in the Anacostia River in this 2001 photograph.

Overall, I’m pleased with the draft Climate Action Plan, and I think it represents a good first step in the right direction. The City assembled an impressive working group of diverse stakeholders and fielded input throughout the process. That said, I definitely think it can be better, and I hope they will consider my comments. I have also submitted a copy of marked-up version of the plan directly to the Office of Sustainability for their review.

To read the report yourself and submit your comments, visit the Climate Action Plan page at SustainableCleveland.org.

 

Recent conference presentations

UPDATE: April 22 at 1:51pm

As I mention below in the original post, the organizers of the JIS & GSC Spring Research Symposium on Human Security and Development made an audio recording of the presentations. Here is the audio from my presentation:

Additionally, if you’d like to hear the other excellent research presented at the conference, you can visit the Journal of International Service‘s YouTube page.

____________________________________________

As noted in a previous post, I recently delivered presentations at two research conferences for graduate students in the Washington, DC area.

Last Friday, 3/22, I delivered the findings from my paper, Breaking the Conflict Trap: On the Factors Contributing to Civil War Recurrenceto the 2nd annual Graduate Student Research Conference at George Mason’s School of Public Policy. A copy of my presentation is available below:


Last evening, I presented the preliminary findings from my Masters thesis research at the Journal of International Service & Graduate Student Conference’s Spring Research Symposium, which focused on human security & development. My presentation, titled “Disasters as Conflict Triggers: A New Framework for Analysis in Conflict-Affected & Post-Conflict States,” focused on my work analyzing the linkages between disasters and conflict in fragile settings. It includes a case study of conflict dynamics of the international response to the 2005 Kashmir Earthquake in Pakistan. A copy of my presentation is below. I will also upload the audio from the presentation as soon as it is available.


Concern trolls at the Washington Post bash environmentalists

The Washington Post editorial board habitually tries to cast itself as constituting the reasonable middle in major policy debates, including climate change. Over the past several months, the Post has made it clear that the only acceptable tactic to mitigate the carbon emissions driving global warming is a carbon tax. Sticking to this script, the board published a new editorial bashing the environmentalists fighting the Keystone XL pipeline.

According to the Post:

The [State Department’s Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement] underscores the extent to which activists have trumped up a relatively mundane infrastructure issue into the premier environmental fight of this decade, leading to big marches and acts of civil disobedience to advance a cause that is worthy of neither. The activists ought to pick more important fights. Until they do, the president should ignore their pressure.

As I explained in a previous post, it’s certainly fair to claim that the Keystone XL pipeline is far from the central battle in the fight climate change. Instead, I argued that Keystone was a smart fight, because it was “a tangible target,” and a fight in which we stand “at least a decent chance of winning.” But I digress. In its conclusion, the editorial board argues:

Instead of indulging in distractions, Mr. Obama and his friends in the environmental movement should push for policies that could make a significant difference by cutting demand for carbon-intensive fuels. As we argued Sunday, a carbon tax is a cause that really is worth fighting for.

WaPo claims that a carbon tax is the only cause worth fighting for. Yet, like other pieces attacking Keystone opponents, the editors cram their policy prescription into one sentence, providing no explanation on how we are supposed to secure their mythical carbon tax. If WaPo has a secret strategy that no one else has proposed on how to get to this point, I think that I can speak for the environmental movement by saying, “we’re all ears.”

But the editors have nothing to contribute on this front. They ignore the fact that increasing partisanship in recent years has largely been one sided. Rather than acknowledging the clear evidence for this asymmetrical polarization – which shows that the GOP has become vastly more conservative than Democrats have become liberal – WaPo opts to lob cheap shots at environmentalists. Rather than making reference to conservatives like Norman Ornstein, who have noted on the op-ed page of the Washington Post no less, that “the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party,” the editorial board publishes this piece.

I could reference the fact that the Washington Post continues to publish the wanton climate denialism of George Will. Rather than acknowledging Will’s continued falsehoods and inaccuracies, the Post‘s editors have defended him, claiming they have “a multi-layer editing process and checks facts to the fullest extent possible,” and that they “have plenty of references that support” Will’s claims.

Additionally, I could note – as Mike Grunwald at TIME has already pointed out – that the Post trumpets the carbon tax while heralding Virginia’s terrible new transportation plan as a “signal achievement” that will make Bob McDonnell’s term as governor “a long-term success.”

But, even more than that, I want to point out the fact that the Post chides silly environmentalists for not supporting its beloved carbon tax, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Perhaps the Post could run a Google search to confirm that fact that the vast majority of environmentalists concerned about climate change do in fact support putting a price on carbon. Take Bill McKibben, the head of 350.org and a leader of the fight against Keystone, for instance. I managed to pull the following articles in which McKibben expressed support for a carbon tax and/or placing a price on carbon:

  • From the San Francisco Gate: “A version of the “fee and dividend” idea is a favorite of NASA climate scientist James Hansen and climate activist Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org.”
  • From Oilprice.com“Oilprice.com: You say no-one is strong enough – what policies would you like to see put in place – what could the politicians do? Bill McKibben: A price on carbon sufficient to keep 80% of current reserves underground, rebated directly to citizens.”
  • From Yale E360: “The only way that it works fast enough to make a difference is if the carbon carries a cost. That’s been the problem all along. Carbon didn’t carry a cost, hence we are in the trouble we are in. The question is how do you do that in a way that doesn’t bankrupt everybody and that lets you do it politically…So the soundest proposal, probably, is to take that money, and write a check to everybody in the country every six months.”
  • From Orion Magazine: “But if 10 percent of people, once they’ve changed the light bulbs, work all-out to change the system? That’s enough. That’s more than enough. It would be enough to match the power of the fossil fuel industry, enough to convince our legislators to put a price on carbon.”
  • From The New Republic: “Or, we could limit government’s role to simply imposing a price on fossil fuel that reflects the damage it does. This wouldn’t even need to be a traditional tax: One proposal gaining ground is to take every dollar produced by such a levy and rebate it to each citizen, using government as a kind of pass-through.”

The whole exercise above took me about five minutes to piece together. Yes, Washington Post editorial board, a carbon tax (in some form) is, in fact, a good idea. It’s an idea that enjoys nearly universal support among environmentalists. But those of us fighting the pipeline also understand that we can’t just wave a magic wand to place a price on carbon. Cap-and-trade failed in the Senate because the conservative opposition to the bill was far more organized, vocal, and aggressive than the environmentalist movement on its behalf.  The movement against the Keystone XL pipeline is an effort to counter this, to level the playing field. If the Washington Post’s editorial board really wants to see a carbon tax enacted, it would be far better off getting out of the way of the activists trying to make it happen.

 

Upcoming conference presentations

I will be presenting at two upcoming conferences for DC-area graduate students later this month.

March 22, I will present my paper, Breaking the Conflict Trap: On the Factors Contributing to Civil War Recurrence, at the 2nd annual Graduate Student Research Conference at George Mason University.

Map of the affected areas & epicenter of the 2005 Kashmir Earthquake. Courtesy of the BBC.

Map of the affected areas & epicenter of the 2005 Kashmir Earthquake. Courtesy of the BBC.

The following Tuesday, March 26, I will present initial details from my current research project, Where DDR Meets DRR, at the Graduate Research Symposium, sponsored by the Journal of International Service and the AU SIS Graduate Student Council.

My presentation will focus the theoretical framework that I have developed, which explains a set of potential pathways linking disasters to conflict in conflict-affected states. Additionally, I will present preliminary evidence of the conflict dynamics of the international response effort to the 2005 Pakistan Earthquake. This work will form the basis of the capstone research for my Master’s program.

I will upload the Powerpoints for each presentation to this site after I have completed them.

What can social movement theory teach us about the Keystone XL fight?

keystone xl protest

I was going to do a full-blown piece on my thoughts about the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline, but I have decided to scale it down. Suffice it to say, I am opposed to the pipeline; I have been at each of the 4 large-scale public rallies against KXL in DC, and I have friends and colleagues who were arrested during the initial civil disobedience in August 2011. For two excellent primers on the arguments against the pipeline, check out this post from David Roberts at Grist, and KC Golden’s piece on the Keystone Principle (i.e. first, do no harm).

12,000 of us rally around the White House against the Keystone XL pipeline in November 2011.

12,000 of us rally around the White House against the Keystone XL pipeline in November 2011.

That said, I do want to explore what social movement theory can inform us regarding two components of this issue: the symbolism of the pipeline and the composition of the movement against it. While I know that some commentators do not agree that constructing a social movement is the right strategy for the fight against climate change, I respectfully disagree. I fail to see how we can pressure the White House and Congress to enact policy tackling climate change without apply concerted, continual pressure to that end.

First, on the symbolism of the pipeline. We know that in order to build a broad social movement, we need to choose a rallying point around which people can organize. This rallying point should be a microcosm of the larger issue, a tangible target (something that people can see, touch, and understand), and a fight in which activists have at least a decent chance of winning. Civil rights activists didn’t start their fight by pushing for the Civil Rights or Voting Rights Acts in Congress. They staged sit-ins at lunch counters and the Montgomery bus boycott.

Dr. James Hansen was arrested in August 2011 during a two-week long civil disobedience against KXL.

Dr. James Hansen was arrested in August 2011 during a two-week long civil disobedience against KXL.

The fight against Keystone XL is in this same vein. The pipeline is a microcosm of the larger fight against climate change. It is being pushed by a powerful fossil fuel company – the primary source of greenhouse gases – and will create a 1,700-mile gash across the face of the United States. It will promote the expansion of the Canadian tar sands industry, which clear cuts Alberta’s carbon-fixing boreal forests and is currently poisoning the air, water, and soil of the region’s First Nations, leading to severe cancer clusters against Canada’s indigenous peoples. The tailings from tar sands are so toxic that mining companies have had to install air cannons in tailings ponds, because birds can die from simply landing on the surface of these ponds. Additionally, while some may dispute about the concrete impacts of the pipeline on the climate, we know that producing bitumen from tar sands generates around 20% more greenhouse gases than conventional oil. As renowned climate scientist James Hansen has noted, Keystone XL could spell “game over” for our Holocene climate.

Even from a linguistic standpoint, Keystone XL presents a good target for a budding social movement. “Keystone” hints at the notion that this pipeline lies at the heart of the Canadian tar sands industry; if we can beat this project, it could help bring down the whole house of cards. The “XL” portion carries a few implications. It signifies both the scale of the fight we have taken on – the habitability of our Earth is ultimately at risk – and the size of the opponent we have engaged – the fossil fuel industry is the largest, most well-financed industry in history. As Bill McKibben is fond of saying, Exxon has made more money than any entity “in the history of money.”

Secondly – and contrary to those who have argued the fight has somehow distracted from more productive action on climate change – the ongoing action against KXL has helped to coalesce a broader coalition on climate change and helps to enhance the breadth and scope of the environmental movement. As I have noted in several conversations and debates with fellow greens (including Jonathan Foley from the University of Minnesota, who is always good natured & engaging), the 40-50,000 of us who marched against the pipeline on February 17 broaden the green tent and create space for those of us fighting from the inside.

Furthermore, all of the post-mortems on the Senate cap & trade bill (including the controversial Climate Shift report from AU professor Matthew Nisbet) criticized climate activists for placing all their eggs in one basket. The Keystone fight is part of a broader, more diversified strategy to fight climate change on multiple fronts. Whether its direct action against the Southern leg of KXL, efforts to stop coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest, or the commitment of mayors to make their cities more resilient in the face of climatic change. In the face of a massive opponent like a changing climate, there is no virtue in being big and consolidated. We need to diversify, decentralize, and go to ground; this is at the heart ofthe KXL fight and the larger strategy being employed by 350.org.

As Bill McKibben wrote in Eaarth, “The wind has begun to blow harder, and hence we need to lower our wind resistance. The sun has begun to burn more brightly, and hence like other animals we need to reduce our size.”

Welcome to My Site

View of the Swiss Alps from the Chateau Gruyere

View of the Swiss Alps from the Chateau Gruyere

After a surprisingly arduous process, I have completed my site; welcome. It was nice to brush off my HTML skills and customize this site. I had forgotten how complex anchor tags could be. I hope this site will provide a medium for me to interact with and gain insight from people interested in my research and posts, allow me to communicate my work and thoughts effectively, and enable me to engage with relevant organizations working on these issues. I look forward to hearing from potential readers.