Another Failure of Vision by Boston’s MBTA

The MBTA, the transit authority for the greater Boston area, has  a new policy. From now on, above-ground trolleys on the D branch of the Green Line will not open their rear doors during off-peak hours. All passengers will have to get on and off through the front door. This policy had already been applied to the other three Green Line branches.

The T’s purpose, obviously, is to reduce fare evasion,which they have to do given their current financial problems. But this is the wrong way to go about it. Almost all (maybe all) of the above-ground stations on the D Line have pre-validation machines that let you pay your fare before boarding. They were installed so that riders could pay in advance, use all doors to board, and therefore speed up the trip in. Now the T is going to reduce service, raise fares, and slow down your ride to boot.

The contradiction of this policy is shown by the decision not to apply it during peak travel hours. At off-peak times the lines to pay will be shorter; but it’s during peak travel that riders can get on a train through the rear doors without being seen. At slow times, the driver can see people getting on at the rear and make them pay, if they have not validated their tickets or passes.

There is a better way: inspection. I was in Vienna a couple years ago, and rode public transit a lot. There are no turnstiles, no conductors taking tickets – you just walk into the station and get on the train, having bought a ticket and put it in your pocket. Why don’t people cheat? Because every so often (it happened to me about once a week) an inspector will ask to see your ticket – and if you don’t have it, you have to pay a heavy fine (about $50, as I recall). No one is going to get caught doing this more than once!

The T is able to mobilize teams of inspectors to do random bag searches, in a ridiculous attempt to counter the non-existent threat of terrorism. If they could put the same energy and personnel into checking for valid tickets, they could let people board through all doors, speed up the process, and make us all happier with their service.

Fukushima – Eve of Destruction?

I’ve always said the real problem with nuclear power is the radioactive waste. Nuclear plants produce tons of highly toxic, hard to contain materials that remain intensely radioactive and dangerous for about 250,000 years, and nobody knows what to do with it. Let me repeat that: no one has any idea how this waste can be dealt with safely, yet we continue to produce it, and governments have plans to produce even more. That’s insane.

I guess I still think that; but today’s release of an investigative report on the Fukushima meltdown in Japan has to make anyone stop and think. The report condemns the lack of preparedness of the company running the plant and the blunders of both company executives and government officials in trying to handle the disaster. But the scary point is that we came very close to an unthinkable catastrophe, “a series of massive chain reactions” that would have destroyed the heart of Japan. Officials considered an evacuation of Tokyo – a city of 35 million people.

In this case, the determination of the heroic Tsukushima 50, who continued working far beyond their safe radiation allowances, and a few lucky breaks pulled us back from the brink on that one. But what will happen next time? As I said, this is insane.

Keystone XL Pipeline: Does Postponement Mean Victory?

Yesterday(November 10, 2011)  the White House announced that the proposal to build the Keystone XL Pipeline, meant to bring oil from the tar sands of northern Alberta to refineries on the coast of Texas, would be sent back to the State Department for further review. This decision is being hailed as a victory by Tar Sands Action, the coalition organized to stop the pipeline. But is it? I’m not so sure.

Environmentalists opposed the pipeline because:

  1. The $7 billion project would lock us into continued dependence on fossil fuels for its lifetime.
  2. Extraction of oil from the tar sands, by hydrofracking and similarly destructive techniques, destroys the area where they are – see these photos – and threaten the Peace-Athabasca Delta, nesting ground for millions of waterfowl, which is immediately downstream.
  3. The proposed pipeline route through Nebraska threatened to contaminate both the Sand Hills region and the underlying Ogalalla Aquifer, principal water source for much of the Great Plains.
  4. The review process in the State Department was corrupt. The Cardno consulting firm, which the State Department had hired to review the proposal, lists the firm that would build the pipeline, TransCanada, as one of its major customers.

Tar Sands Action has conducted an exemplary campaign against the proposal, including massive civil disobedience in front of the White House last summer and the November 6 action when 12,000 people surrounded the White House three-deep, as shown in this CBS video (which drastically lowballs the number of demonstrators, though). One theme of the campaign has been that the protesters worked hard for Barack Obama in 2008, and would like to do so again, but won’t be able to unless he shows that he is on the side of the environment by stopping the pipeline project.

Then came yesterday’s announcement. Specifically, it was said that the proposal would be reviewed to see if a better route could be found; in other words, the administration would still like to proceed with the pipeline, but understand that it would pose a high level of environmental risk to Nebraska. (The Republican governor of Nebraska has been opposing it for that reason.) Coincidentally, the decision to conduct the review means that no decision on the pipeline will be made until early 2013, well after the presidential election.

This seems to me like a transparent ploy to dodge the issue, hoping that the environmental activists will get back in line behind the Obama campaign. An appropriate reaction might be to keep up the protest – to say “we’re beginning to win, let’s demand a total victory: a veto of the pipeline!” But that’s not what’s happening.

Instead, protest leaders like Naomi Klein (in this talk broadcast on Democracy Now) and Bill McKibben (in the statement linked from the first paragraph above)  have declared victory, arguing that delay will kill the pipeline.

I hope they are right. I have great respect for each of them; each has made tremendous contributions to the struggle against the pipeline and the broader struggle against corporate greed and climate change. But this time I think they’ve got it wrong. Once the pressure of the election is off, Obama – or worse yet, his Republican successor – is going to go ahead with the pipeline. Tar Sands Action has 2,500 people pledged to civil disobedience if that happens; but how much more effective it would be if they acted now, before the election, rather than in 2013.

What’s Wrong with the Silver Line?

It’s been awhile! I had to go to Washington last weekend, got back Tuesday just in time for my class, and have been playing catchup (grading papers, preparing classes) ever since. I started this post on the way to Washington because I was irate about the experience of getting to the airport on public transit. There are lots of world and national issues I should be writing about, but I want to finish this one first. If you don’t live in Boston, the following may be of limited interest, though it does relate to some general themes about urban life.

Public transit to the airport is clearly a good thing for any city. It decreases traffic, decreases the need for huge parking lots, and saves money for the traveller who can use it. Boston’s airport has always been transit-accessible, but this used to involve changing to the Blue Line (which for us Red Line users meant two changes), then taking a free shuttle bus from the Airport subway station to your terminal. So when they built an additional tunnel under Boston Harbor, the planners decided to add some Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), the Silver Line. The concept is beautiful – buses have a dedicated tunnel from South Station (the city’s main rail terminal, and a stop on the Red Line) for the first three stops, then make a short loop on city streets to get into the highway tunnel. The BRT articulated bus stops at every terminal, so you don’t have to make an additional change.

A second branch of the Silver Line runs from downtown Boston to Roxbury. This one is not so great – it runs on city streets, only partly in dedicated busways – and those busways are just painted lanes on the road, frequently blocked by unloading trucks, double-parked cars, or other thoughtless motorists.

But the airport service is, as I said, a beautiful concept. The implementation is another story. Here’s a list.

1. The transit authority (MBTA) has a bunch of articulated buses made for the airport service – they have build in luggage racks, an obvious necessity.  Since the racks take up space, they have other buses for the non-airport branches of the line, which go to various destinations in South Boston. However, about 30% of the time they use buses with no luggage racks for airport service. (This happened to me last Friday, inspiring this post!)  So people have no choice but to pile up their bags in the center aisle of the bus, effectively blocking passage down that aisle to anyone else. (I have also been on non-airport Silver Line buses that had luggage racks – so it seems that whoever assigns buses and drivers to routes is simply not paying attention.)

2. Boston’s light rail system, the Green Line, has pre-validation machines at most stops. e stops. These let people pay in advance, then get on the trolley using any door. The Silver Line has none of these. So unless you get on at one of the three underground stations – and, in particular, if you get on at the airport – you have to queue up at the front door with all your luggage, then make your way – past other people with luggage – to the rear of the bus to sit down and, if you are lucky, find open space in a luggage rack (see point 1).

3. Police make no attempt to keep the bus stops free of parked cars, and bus drivers make little attempt to pull completely into the bus stop; so, while the buses are designed with no internal steps, so that luggage could be rolled aboard – it can’t be, because the bus doesn’t pull up to the sidewalk. (In any case, the floor of the bus is slightly higher than most sidewalks, so you have to do a little lifting – a problem that could easily be fixed by raising the platforms in the stations).

Those are just the problems with the airport service. The Roxbury service is much worse. The biggest failing: isthat the MBTA reneged on its commitment to dig a new tunnel to bring the Roxbury buses underground at South Station, so that Roxbury users would have a no-changes ride to the airport. But that would have cost a billion or so, so let’s leave it aside. The other huge problem is that the service is simply not BRT. I’ve been on BRT – for example, in Ottawa – and it has two essential features: dedicated busways, and prepaid stations (you know, like a subway station, where you pay your fare as you enter the station, then board the bus or train through any door when it comes in). The Roxbury Silver Line has neither: its “busway” is a painted stretch of the street, its stations are just gussied-up bus stops. When the MBTA moved the Orange Line from Roxbury to Jamaica Plain, they had promised a replacement service. The community asked for light rail; they said no, but BRT is just as good. What the community got was neither; it’s just a regular bus line with a fancy paint job.

The airport service could be improved at very little cost; they mostly need to pay attention, plus installing some of those validation machines they already have on the Green Line. The Roxbury service would take more – they really should put in light rail – but it would be worth it. The city of the future will be basically car-free, and we have to start moving that way now.

Corporate Cash and Jobs

I keep hearing that corporations are hoarding cash – somewhere abov e $1.2 trillion. That’s a lot of money – and a lot of people are saying that they should be using it to put people to work, creating the jobs our economy needs.

The trouble is, there’s no reason for them to do so. They could hire people to make more products, but people aren’t buying the products they are making now; so if they did that, they would be throwing their money away.

Of course, the reason we consumers aren’t buying stuff is that we don’t have the money ourselves. Either we’re laid off, or our pay is frozen, or we’re afraid of being laid off in the future; and if we’re lucky enough to have a pension fund, it’s lost value. So if the corporations did spend the money to hire people, maybe the people they hired would spend more, and the economy would start to go up.

That’s an iffy process, and a long one. We need a federal jobs program: put people to work fixing bridges, building wind and solar power plants with federal subsidies to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions – and rehire the teachers, health-care workers, police officers, and firefighters that local governments are laying off. That will create demand more quickly and definitely.

What we do not need is tax cuts on business. That will give the corporations even more cash to hoard.

I’m leaving tomorrow for 10 days of vacation, so I may not post for awhile. I’ll be back at it August 23.

5 Things to Understand about the Budget Debate

This will be a quickie – I’m trying to get a book chapter written before leaving for spring break, but you faithful readers need something to tide you over. This will be it until mid-March.

As you follow the debate about the budget – federal, but the states are involved, too – just remember these five things:

1. It’s not about the deficit! Obama’s budget proposal has a deficit of over one trillion dollars. Let’s write it out, $1,000,000,000,000 – wow! Huge! No wonder the House Republicans are upset! So they are fighting hard for $60 billion in cuts, which would leave a deficit of only about one trillion dollars. Hmm . . .

2. It’s not about the deficit! Those most rabid about budget cutting now voted enthusiastically in December for a tax cut package of over $900 billion. (Well, not quite — the most rabid are GOP freshmen, who didn’t get to vote in December because they were not in office yet. Still, the Republican leadership was there, and voted for the tax cuts.) That $900 billion is spread over several years, so defeating the tax cut would not have wiped out the trillion-dollar deficit, but it would have mad a nice dent in it.

3. It’s not about the deficit! We’re fighting wars in Afghanistan (where helicopters just killed 9 boys gathering firewood) and (though our government pretends it’s over) in Iraq. As recent protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Oman, Iran, Morocco, Algeria, Iraq (yes, now that we’ve installed “democracy” there, pro-democracy protests have sprung up, and our “democratic” government is killing them!), and elsewhere have shown, foreign invasion is not the way to democratize a country. I hope they don’t do it in Libya. In any case, really ending these wars is absolutely necessary if we want to get rid of the deficit – yet very few of the deficit hawks are proposing that.

4. It’s not about the deficit! Social security does not contribute to the deficit, yet the majority of the deficit commission wants to cut it, and the Republicans are taking up the cry. (However, keep in mind that the deficit commission never agreed on a report, since there were not enough votes to approve one – so Boehner’s criticism that Obama didn’t follow his own deficit commission is bogus.) Social security does need some adjustment to keep it strong past the middle of the century (how about making the rich pay the tax on their whole income?), but it’s a separate fund. Unless the government diverts social security taxes to pay for other things, cutting social security benefits won’t do anything for the deficit.

5. It’s not about the deficit! Health care costs do contribute to the deficit, yet the deficit-conscious House of Representatives just voted to repeal the national health care law. The law has many flaws, and does not do nearly enough to control health care costs – but it does make a step, and repealing it would increase the deficit.

Conclusion: It’s not about the deficit! The budget cuts the Republicans in Congress are proposing are all based on undermining the ability of government to increase the quality of life for everybody. They will make it harder for anyone but the rich to get an education, eliminate jobs for working people, and make it almost impossible for regulatory agencies to enforce protective laws that are on the books. This is not deficit reduction, it’s class war, another attempt by the upper class to assure that the their profits, dividends, and bonuses are paid for by the rest of us. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker, backed by Republican majorities in the state legislature, is holding the state hostage until his budget bill passes, even though the unions he is trying to destroy have already agreed to all the economic concessions he proposed. The only issue at stake there is the destruction of the unions, part of the destruction of the power of the working class to defend itself. That’s what’s the federal budget battle is about, as well. We should forget about the deficit and pass a budget that creates jobs, lowers the cost of education, protects the environment, and moves us toward a better health care system.

Obama Fails To Lead on the Environment

My computer has been broken for two weeks now, so I’m a little late with this, writing on borrowed equipment. I hope to be back on schedule by next week.


President Obama’s record on environmental issues is mixed. He has done some good things: enforced fishing limits, committed money to building a national high-speed rail network, and moved to get arsenic out of our drinking water, for example.

On the other hand, he has sabotaged the UN climate change negotiations (see Bill McKibben’s article for the details). He promoted a carbon-trading scheme that lets polluters continue to pollute as long as they finance phony development schemes in the less developed countries (see Annie Leonard’s “The Story of Cap and Trade” for more on this). And he pretends that the phrase “clean coal” has something to do with limiting greenhouse gas emissions. (“Clean coal” meant coal with very low sulfur, so that its use would reduce acid rain. But carbon dioxide comes from burning carbon – and that’s what coal is! What Obama really means is carbon sequestration – burning the coal, getting the same carbon dioxide, but then somehow bottling it up and storing it away.)

That was all in his first two years, when he was supposedly exercising visionary leadership! Now, beginning with the lame-duck session of Congress in late 2010, and continuing through the State of the Union address in 2011, we are seeing the new, more moderate Obama. Aside from a dumb joke about how salmon protection is irrational, environmental issues were presented only in the guise of programs to create jobs, and as investments in competitiveness. Steven Cohen of the Earth Institute at Columbia University has argued in Huffington Post that this is a sound climate change policy, just not presented as such – steath environmentalism, you might say.

There are two fatal weaknesses with this approach. First, it is not enough to meet the need. Most climate experts think we need to get greenhouse gas to 350 parts per billion in the atmosphere to avoid catastrophic effects. It is now 392 parts per billion, and climbing. Second, the reason we don’t get more effective policies is that most people do not understand the problem. That’s why the industry can talk about “clean coal,” it’s why Obama can talk about developing oil shale as an environmental policy, it’s why biofuels (simply carbon from another source) are presented as “green,” and why the climate change deniers have not gone the way of the smoking and cancer deniers. Only straight talk and clear explanations by the President and other political leaders will get us where we need to be. Steath environmentalism won’t do it.