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Archive for January, 2011

For the citymusic selection of the week (it has been awhile) we look towards Detroit.  Black Milk has been a solo hip-hop artist in Detroit since 2005.  This track came out in 2008 – proclaiming to Detroit  that “no you’re not losing yet” in the best braggadocio for which hip hop is known.

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Cascadia concept (Source: http://www.livecascadia.com)

Two large-scale master planned communities have been proposed in the Puget Sound area over the past decade.  Cascadia would provide 6,500 homes and office parks on 5,000 acres, on a forested greenfield site 21 miles east of Tacoma and 43 miles southeast of Seattle.

The Yesler Terrace project replaces a low-rise public housing project with up to 5,000 homes and 1,500,000 square feet of commercial development, on a 30 acre site directly across I-5 from downtown Seattle.

The Puget Sound region is expected to add over 1 million new residents in the next few decades.  It sounds logical that the metro area must continue to expand at its edges to accommodate all these people.  But 30 acres near downtown can accommodate nearly as many people as were proposed for 5,000 acres on the exurban fringe. There is plenty of capacity within existing urban areas to accommodate everyone, if we choose to build the city.

Post script:
As of September 2010, the proposed Cascadia community is defunct, repossessed by a bank from the bankrupt developer.  For the Yesler Terrace redevelopment the City will issue the project EIS in February and plans to begin construction in 2012.

Yesler Terrace concept (Source: Seattle Housing Authority)

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St. Petersburg trolley truck (Source: Wikimedia)

Commercial trucks constitute 18% of the greenhouse gas emissions in the City of Seattle.  Moving freight without oil is one of the major technological hurdles for carbon neutrality.  Smaller local deliveries may be made in battery electric trucks such as the Newton or the Zaptruck XL.  But battery electric trucks have limitations, all related to the batteries.  The weight of the battery packs displaces cargo capacity, limiting the cargo weight to battery power ratio.  The process of recharging batteries induces electrical losses, and the batteries themselves require disposal and replacement at the end of their useful life.  Battery power is fundamentally never as efficient as a direct electrical connection.  Electrical trolley buses are the starting point for another solution for carbon neutral goods movement.  Seattle, like many other cities around the world, has a network of electrical overhead contact systems (OCS) over city streets, directly powering buses on frequent routes.  Electrical trolley buses are 100% electric and the technology has been in use for over 60 years.  Could the same technology provide power to trucks?

Siemens Mining Truck with Trolley Power

As a matter of fact, it hasMining operations, in the U.S. prior to early Bush-era cheap oil and to today in Southern Africa, utilize trolley trucks for heavy and steep loads.  Electric traction has advantages over diesel in acceleration, hill-climbing and braking.  If heavy mining trucks can be adapted for electric trolley operation, highway trucks can be designed for it as well.  Trolley-powered trucks are used in the Ukraine and Russia for urban local deliveries.  An electric-trolley powered freight hauling system has been proposed for freeway truck traffic to the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Trolley trucks could be introduced in Seattle in conjunction with an expansion of the existing electric trolley bus system.  The key enabling technology is a wireless smart meter, mounted on top of the truck at the connection point to the trolley poles, which would bill the truck’s registered owner for power supplied through the trolleys (an open trolley power system).  City policies could favor the purchase of dual powered (electric trolley/battery or diesel) trucks.  For example, all large city vehicles (fire trucks, garbage trucks under contract) could use dual power systems.  When travelling on arterials with trolley infrastructure, the driver would raise the trolley poles (with the touch of a button) to directly use electric power and recharge on-board batteries.  When turning onto a local street without trolleys, the driver would lower the poles and rely on a battery backup.  Sound fanciful?  A city serious about carbon neutrality should develop an open trolley infrastructure.  In the excellent book “Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight Without Oil,” Gilbert & Perl argue that in the case of oil scarcity, “grid-connected vehicles” will emerge as a solution for mobility. 

Real world scenario of how this could play out: the City has facilitated expansion of the electric trolley bus system to include all routes within city limits, and banned diesel buses.  Every Safeway supermarket in the City is now on a trolley bus route.  Instead of sending diesel-powered big rigs through city neighborhoods to supply the supermarkets, at each store Safeway could add a short section of trolley wire from the street to the loading dock.  If the Safeway distribution center was on a trolley-powered street, the company could use trolley trucks for all deliveries to its Seattle stores.  And the distribution center could be served by electrified freight rail for bulk food deliveries. 

High-speed trolley wire could also be added to certain lanes of freeways, for bus and truck use.  The Port of Seattle could also develop a program to promote trolley-truck usage for freight.  There are many possibilities such as these yet to be explored for carbon neutral movement of freight.

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Why do I write about cities?  What so attracts me to urban environments?  There are factual reasons that cities are preferable over suburbs and the countryside, often cited on this blog.  But my preference goes deeper, to a visceral emotional level.  I will attempt to put the sources of this preference into words.

Architecture.  I love the architecture of buildings (what else is architecture?).   Rural landscapes are defined by the near absence of buildings.  In suburban settings buildings are designed to be hidden, set back, subdued, never to upstage the focal point of nature, trees and greenery.  The suburban project is an attempt to merge the bucolic rural landscape with the practicalities of home, work, shopping.  It produces not great architecture by design.  In a city, however, buildings cannot be hidden.  They are the city, lending endless variety, new and old, well-kept and run-down, art deco and victorian and post-modern and modern, all on the same block.  One-story, office, six-story, condo, commercial, two-story, hotel, twelve-story, retirement center.  Always something different to feast your eyes on.

Community.  I am a shy person, easily self-entertained.  If I met one hundred thousand people, with maybe five I would click and we would become great friends.  The odds are low.  In a city constantly surrounded by people, with residents from everywhere with every interest known under the sun, the odds are slightly better.  How many people could you meet while driving home on the freeway?  How many people could you meet on a well-attended city bus or subway?  Cities aren’t designed for isolation.  Good cities form strong neighborhood bonds and support institutions.  People seek the city for its crowds, public ceremonies and celebrations, sporting events, critical masses of nightclubs, art galleries or political bicyclists.  Elsewhere people avoid crowds.  I seek them out.

Innovation and influence.  A diversity of experiences leads to new mixtures of ideas that drive every field forward.  Cities are made greater for their serendipitous interactions.  How many musical genres have been invented or transformed in New York City?  How many in the great plain states (with the same population, spread out nearly 1000 miles)?  New ideas are created in cities, and then rapidly transferred and adopted in other cities.  Slowly these innovations spread across the countryside around the world.  Cities set the cultural tone for nations, including within them most leaders and taste-makers, giving them outsized influence economically and culturally (but not always politically).

Sustainability.  Cities have been sustainable communities for millenia in all but the worst of war and societal collapse.  The larger the city, the fewer resources each resident consumes.  Cities can offer as high a quality of life as suburban areas, but its a different quality of life.  One with less travel and fewer personal resources, but with more convenient services and community support.  We live in a world of depleting natural resources and accelerating climate change (induced by our global combustion habits – i.e. burning fuel).  Spreading advances in agriculture mean that fewer and fewer people are needed to farm, and for the first time in human history a majority of us are living in urban areas.  But what type of urban areas?  Dense cities allow efficient living in the face of scarcity, create strong communities and give rise to the innovations we need to maintain prosperity.

The sweep of history.  Humanity started in a garden, cultivating fruit trees.  As time passed large-scale agriculture and industry and cities and trade and empires and megacities developed.  The controlling narrative in American culture, the Christian story, is about redemption and restoration of a lost idyllic paradise.  The Christian scriptures conclude with a vision of the restored people of God: the holy city, the New Jerusalem.  The story does not end with a renewed garden, but with a vision of a city described as 1,400 miles square  and 7,392,000 feet high.

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