Out of Context Problems

Last Thursday I dropped in to the PSU/PDOT Traffic and Transportation Class to hear Gordon Price. I’ve heard Gordon a couple of times, but it’s been at least five years since the last time.

It was well worth it, and fodder for at least a couple of posts. Gordon spent the first part of his presentation talking about Peak Oil.
Last Thursday I dropped in to the PSU/PDOT Traffic and Transportation Class to hear Gordon Price. I’ve heard Gordon a couple of times, but it’s been at least five years since the last time.

It was well worth it, and fodder for at least a couple of posts. Gordon spent the first part of his presentation talking about Peak Oil.

He showed the usual graphs that we’re all familiar with by now, but then went on to characterize it as an ‘out of context’ problem. That is, it represents a change so fundamental that we don’t have the context to evaluate it in. We really don’t know how to think about it, so we don’t, for example, include it in our transportation planning processes.

He compared it to the Native Americans in the Northwest seeing the first ship with Europeans arrive. They had no way to judge what the impacts on their society would be, or how to react. Nonetheless, the impact was crucial.

Out of Context

A slide from Gordon Price’s presentation to the PSU/PDOT Traffic and Transportation Class

This is appropos to the update that will start next year to the Regional Transportation Plan (RTP). Will we be able to wrap our minds around the concept of Peak Oil sufficiently to make some choices based on it in the plan update? Or will we keep our heads in the sand?

On the optimistic side, Gordon mentioned some signs that another out-of-context problem, Global Warming, is beginning to attract some serious thought. His home town of Vancouver, B.C., will host the 2010 Winter Olympics. Organizers are beginning to ask the out-of-context question: will there be snow?

4 responses to “Out of Context Problems”

  1. It’s interesting to think that Vancouver is a much larger part of BC and of Canada than Portland is of Washington and Oregon.

    What Vancouver is becoming describes what Western Canada is becoming… whereas, South Waterfront or the Pearl are not realy the essence of Portland or Oregon in the same way. Maybe Vancouver is Portland’s future… but it is still a distant future.

    And maybe, as Price readily allows, Vancouver’s decisions will have nothing to do with Portland’s urban design choices.

    Most interesting take away from his talk to me was how building tall towers barely doubled the actual population density of neighborhoods. Instead people occupy a lot more space now than they did in the woodframe structures that the high rises replaced.

    He also discussed how Vancouver has two natural barriers (mountains and water) and only one political barrier (southeast of the city, protected farmland.) I doubt our political capacity to resist expansion of the UGB and force a lower transportation higher density lifestyle. For some reason the Canadians have the will (and need?) to protect farmland, and to maintain the boundary that forces growth upward and toward density. We have few natural boundaries, and an interstate boundary that actually encourages sprawl, and complicates coordination. I doubt that we can really maintain the political will to focus growth inward and protect farmland.

    Of course density is the key to creating a truly urban and urbane environment. More people and goods and services within walking/biking distance means we’re not in Kansas anymore… we’re living in a civillized place instead of some country squire fantasy, some dysfunctional fuel dependent suburban dreamland.

    We’ll only get to civillization when the energy economics (increasing costs) of suburban life combine with the political will to focus growth inward. We are a long way from Vancouver still.

  2. Miles,

    I don’t know if I would quite agree that “Vancouver’s decisions have nothing to do with Portland’s urban design choices.” Perhaps someone could elaborate on that statement a bit. While Vancouver’s density is, now, frequently cited as a model for us, the switch to hi-rise condos is quite common throughout the Commonwealth countries and in Latin American cities, too. Just look at Hong Kong! In fact, everywhere I have gone in the past few years I have seen hi-rise condos going in: that includes Calgary, Edmonton, San Diego, Minneapolis, Orange County, Seattle. I have worked on some of them. Despite what developers say, I cannot believe that these are not highly profitable, at $500/sq.ft. I have been trying to understand what drives the cost up. The most expensive things I have seen in them are the concrete floors and columns, the cast iron piping, elevators. Perhaps the glass is spendy but you don’t need the several parts that make up a wood framed wall. A lot of the interior is ordinary stuff; trust me. And often there is savings by not having things single family homes must have. Therefore they should be affordable to the average family or person and there would also be a tremendous savings in maintenance. However, in tract homes a lot of the work is under the table; in a hi-rise the wages and benefits easily top $50.00 per hour. In the Vancouver area one can still find relatively affordable condos in the suburban areas: West End and downtown property is a completely different story.

    So this is a worldwide trend for people who can afford the rest of the lifestyle and want nothing to do with property maintenance. I have been urging our planners to consider rezoning for these in other parts of the Portland area. For example in the Ardenwald-Milwaukie area –site of the controversial Wal-MArt proposal– there is a chance to be on a transit hub, have views, a greenway and proximity to a large city park. Only prob. is the railroad.

    We need to understand that the West Coast will remain the most trouble free and affordable part of the country. Barring an 8-9 earthquake or economic downturn (and I guess Asian flu) the livin’ is easy, here. When you say we need “the political will to focus growth inward” I would respond that we also need a policy to make the urban lifestyle affordable. It should be. One great concern would be seismic safety; a building that goes hundreds of feet in the air would be in severe trouble if the ground shifted. There is plenty of evidence of major quakes causing huges drops in the ground level: We don’t know what weaknesses may lie 100-500 feet underground. I think hi-rises should be firmly linked below the ground level, but I’m not a seismic engineer.

  3. Well the statement was intended to be modified by the word “maybe” which suggests how I heard him say it. Price was just saying “don’t read my praise of Vancouver as a prescription for you…” and that’s just smart politics, and a smart way to deliver a prescription too.

    Personally I have no problem with the the construction of residential towers if the market for them is there.

    What is hard for the uninvolved like me (not a developer, not a policy wonk) to grasp is all of the subsidies (transport, infrastructure, tax abatements, bribery, legal and otherwise) that are probably the real determinant of how our cities look and how we live.

    I just suspect that in a cheap gas (still, and for the next 10 years?) world, the political economic forces that drive low density suburban housing construction are still ascendent.

    The economist’s dream is that everything could have a real, knowable price, and decisions in that frictionless efficient free market would maximize utility for all. (Thus, I say… build ’em if there is a market.)

    The political economist’s wisdom is that this is never so. (Thus I say… but is there REALLY a market for high density, or just an artificial one created by legal and political arrangements and the exercise of political power? And you point to other distortions in the other direction in favor of low density construciton.)

    And the citizen’s cunundrum is that figuring out what is really going on is almost impossible.

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