Sunday, January 11, 2015

Interview on is a national organization that promotes flexible working arrangements.

They just published an interview with me about my book The Politics of Simple Living: Why Our Economy Is Making Life Worse and How We Can Make It Better.

They also included an embedded video about the Berkeley Flexible Work Time initiative, taken from the initiative web site.

Check it out at this site - and if the spirit moves you, feel free to leave comments.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Meaningful Skyline

Visually, it is best for a city to have a height limit of no more than six stories for fabric buildings. This is the scale that gives visual coherence to traditional European cities, where the cathedral and perhaps the campanile stand out above the urban fabric. We have a similar coherent scale in Washington D.C., where the Capitol dome and Washington Monument stand out above the urban fabric. It is also possible for a city to be visually coherent with a height limit of as much as twelve stories for fabric buildings, if it has symbolic buildings or towers large enough to give it a strong visual identity. With fabric buildings much higher than twelve stories, though, a city is bound to be dominated visually by a crowd of faceless high-rises, like most modern American downtowns; it can still work well as a city, but it will not be visually coherent.
The cathedrals and government buildings that dominate the skylines of traditional cities symbolized the shared values of the people who live there – common religious, cultural and political values. The glass and steel high-rises that dominate the skylines of American cities today symbolize our shared belief in technology and economic growth; the modernists said they were symbols of purely rational decision making, but they look more like symbols of technology that has never been controlled, of a society where growth is not subordinated to human purposes. 
If a contemporary American city were built with a six-story height limit for fabric buildings and no limits on symbolically important buildings, it would not center on one religious building, like the cathedral of mediaeval cities whose life centered on a common religion, and it would not center on one or two government buildings, like Washington, DC, a company town where life is dominated by the federal government. It would be much more pluralistic. 
In the city center, the largest buildings of the city’s major religions would rise above the urban fabric: perhaps a cathedral, a mosque, a Hindu temple. Several different types of civic building would rise above the urban fabric: city hall, the main courthouse, major museums. There might also be a purely symbolic structure in the city center, such as a campanile or a obelisk. Out in the neighborhoods, hundreds of smaller buildings would rise above the urban fabric: church steeples, local library branches, local courthouses, community centers. 
These should be designed to make a distinctive mark on the skyline: even if the building proper does not have to be larger than the fabric buildings that surround it, it should include a tower or spire that rises above the fabric. In some cases, we already have conventions that let us identify the type of building from a distance – steeples for churches, minarets for mosques, classical cupolas for government buildings. We should try to create an equally strong visual identity for other types of buildings. 
The typical skyline of our cities today is a clutter of faceless high-rises. You cannot even tell by looking at them which are office buildings and which are housing. It is usually boring, because most high-rises look more or less the same, but it is even worse when developers pull in avant-gardist architects who design high-rises that are weird just for the sake of being different. It is usually meaningless, because it is made up of housing and offices, which have no symbolic value, but if one building dominates the skyline, it can create inadvertent symbolism: for example, in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina, the 60-story Bank of America Corporate Center, by the well known modernist architect Cesar Pelli, towers over the usual clutter of faceless high rises, and the skyline very clearly symbolizes the fact that this city is so fixated on growth that the developers can do what they want and the bankers are in charge. (They themselves would say it symbolizes the “economic dynamism” of their city – but that is just another way of saying the same thing.)
The skyline of the city we are imagining would be interesting, with distinctive building types rising above the fabric, including some structures that are unique to the city, like the Duomo of Florence or the Campanile of Venice. This skyline would also be meaningful: the urban fabric represents the necessities of life, housing and business, and the buildings that rise above the fabric represent the things that people believe make their lives worthwhile – religion, culture, self-government. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Victory for Flexible Work Time Initiative

Measure Q, the Berkeley Flexible Work Time Initiative, won overwhelmingly, with 78.79% voting Yes - a margin of more than three to one.

Because this was an advisory initiative, we still have a lot of work ahead of us, getting a law passed in Berkeley and getting a bill introduced in the state legislature.

This is the first time that flexible work time has ever been on the ballot, and the overwhelming victory shows that this is an issue whose time has come. Earlier this year, President Obama issued an executive order giving this sort of flexibility to federal employees. I expect the issue to keep becoming more prominent.

This is an issue that will change people's lives. There are lots of working couples who have trouble balancing work and family, and this sort of law will make their lives dramatically better.

We have made progress on our goal of getting people to see that work time is not only a family issue; it is also an environmental issue. If people choose to work less and consume less, they will also pollute less. Bill McKibben was one of the early endorsers of the initiative, and the Sierra Club and Green Party also endorsed it - as did the Democratic Party of Alameda County, showing that it is a mainstream issue.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Driverless Cars and Livable Cities

Most enthusiasts for driverless cars are not asking the right questions. They assume that our cities will not change and that driverless cars will make it easier for people to get around these cities. They focus on technological change and turn a blind eye to possible social change.

But when we start to ask how driverless cars can change our cities for the better, interesting ideas pop up.

For example, there would be obvious benefits to driverless cars that were programmed to observe the speed limit. There would have to be some sort of GIS telling the car what the speed limit is on each street it drives on.

We could not only reduce the danger of accidents by reducing speeding.  We could also lower speed limits drastically.

For example, we could lower the speed limit to 12 mph on bicycle priority streets, so bicycles can really share the road with cars rather than being forced to keep to the right. Today, most drivers exceed the speed limit. No one would obey a 12 mph limit, and in most states, it is illegal to set the speed limit lower than the actual speed of most drivers

If there were a significant number of driverless cars programmed to obeyed the speed limit, then the cars with drivers would also obey the speed limit - at least on roads with just one traffic lane in each direction, which are the best candidates for bicycle priority streets. The driverless cars would act as traffic calming devices that prevent other cars from going faster than the speed limit.

We could also create shared spaces, used by both pedestrians and cars, with speed limits as low as 5 mph.

Most radically, we could reduce speed limits across an entire city, so people would drive less, as I suggested in my book Unplanning: Livable Cities and Political Choices.

Even without lower speed limits, it is interesting to speculate about how driverless cars could affect busy urban streets, filled with cars and pedestrians. Today, some pedestrians sneak across these streets, walking through the jammed traffic.  Many would probably realize that the driverless cars are programmed to stop when there is a pedestrian in front of them, and some would be willing to cross the street even if it means walking in front of that are moving slowly and forcing them to stop.  It would be frustrating for the people in the cars, but the street would become a better place for pedestrians to be.

The conventional wisdom is that driverless cars would make driving quicker and more efficient.  But if we want to make our cities more livable, we would do well to use driverless cars in ways that make driving slower - and sometimes even less efficient.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Driving to the Poor House

Protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, claim that the city relies on traffic tickets for too much of its revenue and that tickets for lower-income people often turn into bench warrants and jail time.

For example, one man received a $100 ticket and had only $80 when he went to pay it, so the ticket turned into a warrant for his arrest.

The ticketing is obviously unfair and a hardship to many people, so I support the protests.  But I wonder why none of the news stories about Ferguson mention the deeper issue that underlies it.  Why do we design our cities so people have to drive?

That man who doesn't have $100 to pay his traffic ticket undoubtedly spends thousands of dollars on his car each year. The cost is a hardship even to middle-class Americans and much more of a hardship to the poor.  Yet most Americans live in locations where they cannot go anywhere without driving.

I myself am lucky enough to live in an older city where it is possible to get around without a car.  I have bicycled as my main form of transportation for all of my adult life.  When I was commuting by bicycle, I estimated that I spend less than $50 per year on transportation, which went to occasional bike parts and repairs - quite a contrast with the $7,000 per year that the average American spends on transportation.

If I had owned a car all that time, I would have only about half as much in my savings as I do.

Let's deal with the short-term hardship caused by unfair ticketing in Ferguson, but let's also deal with the much greater economic burden of automobile dependency by rebuilding our cities so it is not mandatory to own an automobile.

It reminds me of the old saying of Will Rogers: America is the first country in history where people drive to the poorhouse. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Happiness: The Failure of Growth

International comparisons of how per capita GDP affects happiness reveal the same pattern that we saw in the last two posts about health care and education: economic growth (higher per capita GDP) increases happiness at lower levels of income but stops increasing happiness at a level much lower than what we now have in the United States.

Here is a graph of per capita GDP and people's responses to survey questions asking them how happy they are and how satisfied they are with their lives.

We can see that higher per capita GDP stops increasing happiness at about $15,000 per year, less than half the per capita GDP of the United States.

This result is not surprising. In poor countries, more income is needed to provide people with decent housing, food, education, health care, and other essentials; it makes sense that people will become happier as they can afford more of the necessities and basic comforts of life. But when people reach about one-half of the average American’s current income, they have enough to make them comfortable, and there is relatively little benefit to consuming even more. 
Once you have the basic elements of economic comfort, such as good housing, health care, and education, and you also have some luxuries, such as music, books, and travel, consuming even more does not bring great benefits—but it does bring real costs.
Growth continues to cause massive environmental costs even after it stops bringing significant benefits. There would obviously be less chance of ecological disruption in the coming century, if nations that were already economically comfortable tried to achieve the best possible quality of life rather than the fastest possible rate of economic growth.
Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, has written a book summarizing the current research on happiness, and he sums up the issue we face very neatly when he says:
“If it turns out to be true that rising incomes have failed to make Americans happier, as much of the recent research suggests, what is the point of working such long hours and risking environmental disaster in order to keep doubling and redoubling our Gross Domestic Product?” (Bok, The Politics of Happiness, p. 63)

Monday, July 28, 2014

Education: The Failure of Growth

International comparisons of educational spending and outcomes reveal the same familiar pattern that we saw in the previous post about health care. Greater expenditures produce better outcomes at lower levels of spending, but the benefits disappear after spending reaches a level that is much lower than what we spend in the United States.

Here is a graph of educational spending and achievement. The measurement uses the PISA test, which is the best data for international comparisons of educational achievement.

We can see that spending more per pupil on education does not increase achievement after spending reaches Australia's level. The United States spends more than twice as much as Australia, but has lower achievement.

In the case of health care, there was a very obvious reason why the United States had worse outcomes than other high-spending nations: we have the highest rate of obesity of any developed nation.

In the case of education, the reason is not as obvious. A couple of reasons seem plausible.

One possible explanation is lack of family time. Our economy requires many parents to work two full-time jobs, leaving them with little time for their children.  More children than ever are cared for by state agencies or are latchkey children who return to empty homes after school.  According to the Census Bureau, one-third of school-age children are home alone during at least part of the week.

A second possible explanation is excessive use of media. According to a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the amount of time that eight-to-eighteen-year old children spend with media increased from 6 hours 21 minutes per day in 2004 to 7 hours and 38 minutes in 2009. In 45% of all homes, the television is on most of the time, even when no one is watching it, and 71% of children have their own televisions in their bedrooms. The overuse of media is a direct distraction from learning: Almost half of all children watch television while doing their homework.

Media addiction works against academic achievement. This study found that 47% of the children who are heavy media users (spending more than 16 hours per day with media) get fair or poor grades, compared with only 23% of children who are light media users (spending 3 hours a day or less with media). Minority students are affected most: black and Hispanic students spend about four and a half hours more per day with media than white students.

It is astounding that heavy users are defined as those who spend more than 16 hours a day with media. There are only 24 hours in the day, so if you spent 8 hours sleeping, 16 hours with media would take up all your waking hours. Yet heavy users manage to spend more time than this. 

When it comes to education, we have reached a point where economic growth no longer brings significant benefits: we can see from the graph that there is little or no benefit to spending more than half of what the United States spends. At the same time, our consumer society works against education, by leaving parents with too little time for their children and by turning children into passive consumers of entertainment who have trouble making the effort that is needed to learn.