Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Deep Japan

I'm writing this while rolling under the Tsugaru channel on Japan Railway Hokkaido's Super Hakucho ('Super Swan'), en route to Hakodate. We're in the Seikan Tunnel, 53.85 km (33.46 miles) long, 240 m (787 ft) below mean sea level, hence my title, "Deep Japan".

There are several reasons why I've come to Japan. The largest concentration of humanity in the world is the Tokyo-Kawasaki-Yokohama conurbation. The total land area is about the size of California, but only one fifth of the land is flat enough to farm - the rest is mountainous. The countryside is really beautiful, deeply revered, and lovingly cared for. It's the second largest economy in the world, and the standard of living compares well with that of other indistrialized nations. These folks must know something about sustainability.

The Japanese also have remarkable rail service, and I'm convinced this is a big part of their secret. This Seikan tunnel is only one of many remarkable feats. We all know the Japanese had the first truly high-speed rail service, the Shinkansen "bullet trains" that entered service between Tokyo and Osaka in 1964. The train I'm on now is not a Shinkansen, just a "limited express" running between two provincial cities. It's still fast, and incredibly quiet.
I've been in Japan now for two full days and have ridden on several electric multiple-unit trains, two Shinkansens, a diesel multiple-unit train, and a steam-hauled excursion train. Every one of these has been on time, to the minute. Every one has been clean and staffed by friendly, courteous, helpful people.

Japan also has at least twenty private passenger railways. All suburbs of major cities are served by railways, and all the major cities have more than one railway company serving them. Thousands of tiny towns are served by passenger rail.
All cities and towns have bus service. Many medium-size cities still have streetcars running, though unlike Europe these mainly run "antique" streetcars. Although there are lots of automobiles, they are not necessary, since public transportation, walking, and bicycling are available and fostered everywhere.

I spent last night and this morning in the city of Sendai, which is two hours north of Tokyo by shinkansen, and about the size of Detroit (1,028,214 in 2005). The downtown area is centered around the railway station, which has Shinkansen service, several local rail lines, a city subway line, and many bus lines. Our hotel and several large stores are connected with the station complex by an elegant elevated walkway. There is a shopping arcade that totals six blocks in length. The buildings are densely clustered throughout the city and high rise buildings are common, but there are several large parks (including a ruined castle). It's a city I'd enjoy living in.

OK. This blog entry is long enough. More about Japan later.


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Wake Up Washtenaw White Paper: 2. Background

Our White Paper series continues with the second section:

2. Background

Climate change. High cost of energy. Growing congestion. Michigan's plummeting economy.

How can we solve all these problems?

The answer lies in taking world-class methods and applying them with American ingenuity and know-how. The place to start? Right here in Washtenaw County.
There are many groups working on these problems: climate, energy, congestion, the economy. What we need is to get all these groups working together.

The key to all these problems is to build sustainable, transit-oriented communities. Sustainability requires minimum dependence on outside resources, including food, energy, and waste management. We have the technology to build sustainable communities; what we have lacked is the collective will to do it. We are now coming to realize the need for sustainability, and with that realization comes a growing will act. There is a realization that we have become dependent on food grown thousands of miles from us, and low-cost transportation can no longer be expected. We all know that heating and cooling costs are spiraling out of control, and we need to find alternatives to fossil fuels if we want to continue to live comfortably.

Why transit-oriented? Because transportation is the largest single factor determining how populations settle and build communities. Civilization as we know it depends on being able to move people and goods around.

The latter half of the twentieth century in the United States based almost all its transportation and settlement patterns on highways. Individuals gained freedom of movement by owning personal automobiles, and distributers of goods gained flexibility by using large trucks.

This was successful and liberating as long as (1) fuel was inexpensive, (2) the number of vehicles did not exceed the capacity of the highway system, and (3) a significant proportion of the population was able to afford private vehicles. But each of these three conditions is now seriously challenged. About 30% of energy expended in the United States is used to move people and goods around. Privately owned vehicles (POVs) now demand an increasing share of personal and community resources.

Though effective at providing flexible transportation, POVs are not efficient for moving large numbers of people. We need communities built for convenient walking and accessible to efficient transportation, in order to free us from dependence on fossil fuels, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and turn around the economy.


They say it can't be done: "Michigan's history and spirit is too deeply rooted in the private automobile." "We can never expect Michiganders to embrace any solution that isn't based on cars."

They say it can't be done: "Michigan's politicians and developers are too happy making money from the status quo." "They'll never be proactive enough to invest in new solutions."

We say, it must be done. Future generations of Michigan residents will trapped in poverty and unsustainable communities if we don't act now.
One extremely valuable and insightful guide is Michigan Future's Progress Report:

To us the clear message from the data we have just reviewed is the key to economic growth is talent. Quite simply, in a flattening world, economic development priority one is to prepare, retain and attract talent.

There are no quick fixes, the Michigan economy is going to continue to lag the nation for the foreseeable future. But there is a path back to high prosperity. As is laid out in our New Agenda report, we believe the framework for action is:
  • Building a culture aligned with (rather than resisting) the realities of a flattening world. We need to far more highly value learning, an entrepreneurial spirit and being welcoming to all.
  • Creating places where talent - particularly mobile young talent - wants to live. This means expanded public investments in quality of place with an emphasis on vibrant central city neighborhoods.
  • Ensuring the long-term success of a vibrant and agile higher education system. This means increasing public investments in higher education. Our higher education institutions - particularly the major research institutions - are the most important assets we have to develop the concentration of talent needed in a knowledge-based economy.
  • Transforming teaching and learning so that it is aligned with the realities of a flattening world. All of education needs reinvention. Most important is to substantially increase the proportion of students who leave high school academically ready for higher education.
  • Developing new public and, most importantly, private sector leadership that has moved beyond both a desire to recreate the old economy as well as the old fights. A leadership that is clearly focused, at both the state and regional level, on preparing, retaining and attracting talent so that we can prosper in the global economy.

What does talent have to do with sustainable development? In a word, everything. Talented young people are very aware of the crisis looming over our world's climate and our American way of life. They are attracted to innovative solutions to these problems, and eager to lend a hand to make them work. Communities that are built to address these problems are vitally interesting to them; on the other hand, regions that lag behind and cling to old, unsustainable models repel talented young people.

Our American values have long said that responsibility for improving our children's education lies primarily in the public sector. At the same time, American values have put community development in the private sector, though with oversight from the public. While the public sector focuses on retaining and improving Michigan's educational advantages, the private sector should be empowered and encouraged to develop communities that attract talented, mobile young people.

Wake Up Washtenaw sees its role as (1) empowering responsible development through community action to revise our zoning codes, and (2) inviting and encouraging responsible developers and Michigan citizens to invest in sustainable development.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Wake Up Washtenaw “White Paper”: Overview

This is the first in a series of posts airing the first draft of Wake Up Washtenaw's "What Paper". It's out here for your comments and suggestions, so have at it!


Wake Up Washtenaw is a non-profit citizens' organization encouraging sustainable, transit-oriented development by private groups in Washtenaw County.
  • We encourage sustainable development that is carbon-neutral, and when possible, is able to provide basic food needs and take care of its own waste stream.
  • We encourage walkable, transit-oriented development that enables residents to get to their jobs, shopping, recreation and worship without the need for privately owned vehicles.
  • We encourage development by a consortium or similar group of private businesses and residents, rather than depending on public funding.
  • Now is the time to begin: a low point in the economic cycle is a good time for planning new projects and investing in the necessary resources. In addition, the certainty of climate change and the limits of fossil fuels have brought public awareness to an all-time high.
It's not enough for citizens to wait for "them" to do something about our changing needs. It is necessary for all of us to work together to make sustainable living possible - and profitable.