Paving over the Mid-City Transitway

As I started writing this post I was suddenly taken by the idea of submitting it to the Tribune as an op-ed, which explains the writing style. Since I have no hope of them publishing it, here it is for your enjoyment.

As the reelection of Mayor Daley approaches and the Illinois legislature gears up for a big budget battle in Springfield, an important but largely unknown issue has hit the media in the last week. In an alarming display of poor judgment, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan announced his support for a new highway running through the Northwest, West, and Southwest Sides.

Madigan seems not to have consulted anyone on plans for the unused railroad corridor just east of Cicero Avenue that the first Mayor Daley had planned to turn into a highway called the Crosstown Expressway. He did not speak with Governor Blagojevich, the City of Chicago, the Illinois Department of Transportation, or the toll authority before proposing the new highway. Area transportation experts expressed surprise at Madigan's plan, and skepticism that it would ever be politically viable. In 1979 the original plan was killed by the strong opposition of residents who would have been forced out by the highway construction's swath of destruction. Perhaps Madigan failed to consult a recent map of Chicago's population as well, but a lot of people are still living there.

Good thing, too. The last thing Chicago needs is another highway. As study after study have shown, new road construction does not alleviate congestion. Rather, traffic expands to fill the new space, leaving road conditions unchanged but adding a lot more pollution, greenhouse gases, and road accidents.

What the city desperately needs is not more roads, but more transit options. If Chicago is going to meet Daley's goal of becoming the "greenest city in America", it has to come up with an adequate infrastructure for people who want to get out of the traffic jams and away from the road rage. It will have to revive and expand public transit.

A plan to do just that in the Cicero railroad corridor has been under discussion since 2002. Known as the Mid-City Transitway (MCT), the plan would develop the corridor as a new El line instead of a highway. Running from the Blue Line Jefferson Park stop south to Midway Airport then heading east along 74th, the MCT would end at the Red Line 87th Street station.

If built, the MCT would provide a direct connection between O'Hare and Midway. It would finally establish a north-south El line in the western part of the city, linking the Blue, Green, Orange, and Red Lines. And it would bring the El to huge swaths of the city that have been excluded. According to a 2005 study commissioned by the city, an MTC El would attract about 90,000 riders a day - numbers similar to the heavily used North Side Red Line and twice that of the Brown Line. (See information on neighborhood population densities here and here.)

In response to Madigan's proposal, Daley has voiced his support for building some sort of mass transit and a trucks-only road in the Cicero corridor. The idea is certainly better than Madigan's, but why has Daley made the MTC such a low priority?

The MTC has languished as a "long-term proposal" with no political urgency behind it. Instead, Daley and the CTA have pushed forward projects like the Circle Line and Block 37. The Circle Line would form an outer Loop linking El and Metra lines just outside of downtown. Because part of it would be underground and because it runs through valuable land, it would cost about as much to build the Circle Line's 5 miles as it would to build the MTC's 22 miles. The Circle Line would draw far fewer riders and run through parts of the city already well-served by transit. Yet it moves quickly forward while the MTC remains endangered by hare-brained proposals like Madigan's. Could the percentage of condos in the Circle Line's vicinity provide some clue to this otherwise baffling development?

Until our city's leaders get serious about public transit, and about serving all parts of the city rather than just the professional set, our atrocious traffic situation will only get worse. An MTC El should be an integral part of a serious plan to dramatically improve Chicago mass transit.


More on the Democrats

Here's a short and unsatisfying list of John Edwards's policy positions. He sounds a lot better than Obama on energy, sounds about the same on Iran. Here's a much more satisfying interview with Edwards, mainly about Iran and Israel. Clinton, Edwards, and Obama all seem to have the same dishonest policy on Iran - they harshly criticize Bush for not negotiating with Iran, but insist on "keeping all options on the table". It's dishonest because the goal of the negotiations - that Iran renounce nuclear weapons even as it is surrounded on literally all sides by hostile nuclear powers - is simply not realistic. And that only leaves military action or a continuation of the "containment" policy pursued by all administrations since the American client regime was overthrown.

So Edwards seems pretty bad on foreign policy, just another liberal imperialist. When asked "What does Iraq say about the feasibility and the bar for invading countries in the Middle East?", Edwards responds, "It means that we have to be much more careful." In other words, for Edwards the problem with the Iraq war is that it was done recklessly, under false pretenses. He refuses to condemn the crime of aggressive war, and he refuses to condemn American supremacy.

Here is an article on Obama's Israel policy. Surprise! He blames the Palestinians for being oppressed. So on Israel, too, Clinton, Edwards, and Obama are tied - all lousy.

I suppose it's a bit much to ask for an anti-imperialist to emerge as a viable Democratic candidate. The American elite has been united behind American supremacy since 1945, and Democratic presidents have been some of the most violent in their defense of it. To the extent this election is worth spending time on, Edwards still seems to be the best candidate at this point. Sad that in the first race in which a woman and a black man are viable, they are also the least progressive. Sad, but revealing.


Took 'em long enough

Chicago has finally enforced its ban on foie gras for the first time. The target was the owner of Hot Doug's, the hot dog place by Lane Tech. This guy has been a real asshole about breaking the law, so it's good to see him fined.

If you want to send an email to Hot Doug's, the address is info@hotdougs.com.


letter to the editor, re: subsidies for drivers

I've always thought it a little strange that I've managed to get a half dozen letters published in The New York Times and even one in The Washington Post, but still not a single one in the Chicago Tribune. This one, which I sent last week, continues the streak.

To the editors:
If car-dependent suburbanites think they're subsidizing public transit in Chicago, they're dead wrong ("Transit agencies go after billions", 2007 February 8). It's those of us who don't own cars that are subsidizing them: paying to build roads for them, paying the clean-up costs and hospital bills incurred by their pollution and car accidents, sacrificing valuable urban space to eyesores like parking lots and gas stations.

But even more than nondrivers, it's future generations who are subsidizing drivers. As the IPCC report on global warming makes clear, our children and grandchildren will spend huge amounts of money to deal with the mess we're giving them. What is this but an enormous transfer of their wealth to us, so that we can enjoy the convenience of traffic jams and road rage?

We should dramatically increase taxes on cars and gasoline and use the money to build an outstanding public transit system for the whole metro area. The faster we do it, the less money we'll be stealing from those who come after us.


At last, the big Obama post

Well now that he's finally running and has become the great black hope of white liberals, I suppose I should pass judgment.

I read thru the interesting (nonbiographical) parts of his book some months ago and took extensive tho sometimes illegible notes. Based on that, I have no great enthusiasm for the man.

It seems to me that the key issues in the presidential election should be (in no particular order):
1) health care,
2) Iraq and other foreign policy,
3) global warming,
4) immigration,
5) poverty, economic decay, and its connection to race.

(You'll notice I did not mention the goddamn middle class, because there are some people who have real problems.)

So how does Obama rate?

1) Health care.
The only acceptable solution here is a single-payer health care system, or the extension of Medicare to everyone in the country, preferably with the nationalization of the pharmaceutical companies. The patchwork solutions that Democrats have been pushing are expensive and inefficient and will be rolled back next time the budget has some problems. Obama seems to recognize this when he writes, "there may be other more cost-effective and elegant ways to improve the health-care system" (186), but he goes ahead and signs on to the same old incremental, fatally flawed approach anyway. I don't remember the specifics, but my notes refer to his proposal as "half-assed health care".

2) Iraq and other foreign policy.
Unlike many Democrats, Obama opposed the invasion before it began. In the book he calls for a phased troop withdrawal by the end of 1996, and it seems likely that as president he'd get most of the combat troops out. Whether he'd establish permanent bases and continue to interfere in Iraq is less clear.

His general foreign policy discussion in the book makes clear that he's a liberal imperialist, willing to defend America's world hegemony but preferring to do so with bribery and shows of consultation rather than thru unilateral violence. He speaks admiringly of Truman, Acheson, Marshall, and Kennan - the architects of the cold war - as "marr[ying] [Woodrow] Wilson's idealism to hardheaded realism, an acceptance of America's power with a humility regarding America's ability to control events around the world. . . . America needed to maintain its military dominance and be prepared to use force in defense of its interests across the globe" (284).

As for the present day, he writes, "So long as Russia and China retain their own large military forces and haven't fully rid themselves of the instinct to throw their weight around - and so long as a handful of rogue states are willing to attack other sovereign nations . . . - there will be times when we must again play the role of the world's reluctant sheriff. This will not change - nor should it" (306).

When he speaks of "rogue states willing to attack other sovereign nations", he's not referring to the USA, but it's unclear who he is talking about since in the last 15 years the only country to attack other sovereign nations has been America (you might want to include the Eritrea-Ethiopia war, or possibly Israel, but I don't think this is who he has in mind). Regardless, it should be clear that Obama is just another great power hypocrite, willing to use violence to protect American supremacy if he needs to. In light of this, his reference to China as a "potential rival" (307) and his warlike statements about Iran appear rather ominous.

3) Global warming.
Political space to address global warming has been opening with suprising speed over the last couple years, so Obama's failure to say much of anything about it in his book is doubly disappointing. He does call for an end to oil company subsidies, taxing those companies one percent of their revenues to fund alternative fuel research, and for increased fuel efficiency standards. But he mostly justifies these in terms of national security and economic stability, with nary a word on global warming. The centerpiece of what there is of an environmental program is expanding ethanol production. That will serve Obama campaign contributor and corporate agriculture giant Archer Daniels Midland well, but will not do much to fight global warming. Obama is also supportive of (energy intensive) technologies that turn coal into oil, a nice sop for downstate coal interests but terribly regressive on global warming.

4) Immigration.
Obama writes that "American citizenship is a privilege and not a right, that without meaningful borders and respect for the law, the very things that brought [immigrants] to America, the opportunities and protections afforded those who live in this country, would surely erode" (267). This is simply not good enough. It does not address the root cause of massive immigration - global inequality - and it does not condemn the racism that has been animating anti-Mexican legislation and invective. What we need is an amnesty, not cliched rhetoric.

5) Poverty, economic decay, and its connection to race.
Obama calls for many useful economic measures, including a raise in the minimum wage, increased earned income tax credit, stronger unemployment insurance, better legal protections for unions, and government subsidized jobs programs in the inner city. But these are crumbs - they're not imaginative, they certainly don't go far enough, and Obama stays away from the real problems here, institutional racism and capitalism. He also doesn't have much to say on reviving economic activity in the ghetto or reforming our system of so-called criminal justice.

On other issues, Obama doesn't look much better. He opposes gay marriage. He admits using marijuana and cocaine so he should know that drug prohibition is asinine, but if he does he's not doing anything about it. His biggest funders are corporate law firms and finance capital. His close advisers and friends are a collection of campaign mercenaries, corporate bigwigs, and Daley proteges. Perhaps the most damning thing about Obama is that he hasn't used his huge media presence to push any truly ambitious progressive policy.

All that said, Obama may be the best choice among the viable candidates - the only one that may be better, at least in rhetoric if not policy, is Edwards. Certainly, some useful organizing could take place under cover of campaigning for Obama. But we on the left should be clear: there is almost no evidence that this man is our ally, and investing great hope in him seems deeply misguided.


Global warming miscellany

So last weekend I spent far too much time going to blogs that mentioned the IPCC report on global warming and leaving comments like this:
probably the single biggest thing thing we can do as individuals to fight global warming is to go vegetarian. a recent UN report found that the livestock industry accounts for 18 percent of human-induced greenhouse gases (more than cars!), and a university of chicago study concluded that switching from a typical american diet to a vegetarian diet reduces your contribution to global warming more than if you switched from a regular car to a hybrid. not to mention all the other environmental damage done by the meat industry, or the horrific suffering of the animals.
The media literally haven't reported on either of these studies (the only thing a Lexis-Nexis search turns up is a half-assed New York Times editorial), so I thought it was a good chance to try and educate people about meat's role in global warming.

I was really surprised by the strong presence of global warming deniers. On any thread that discussion got going, they seemed to be as numerous as those who believe in science. And I only visited blogs that seemed concerned about global warming, so there was a significant number of denier bloggers that I didn't even bother with. The deniers seem particularly strong in the USA, Australia, and Canada. Those three also happen to be numbers 1, 2, and 3 in per capita carbon emissions among large industrial countries (there are a handful of island nations and oil-producing kingdoms with higher levels, plus Luxembourg).

But I don't think the deniers are our biggest problem. I suspect popular complacency and resistance to reducing our consumption will prove much bigger obstacles.

Some interesting numbers I've come across:
Carbon emissions per capita, 1990-2003. The USA, Australia, and Canada are the worst by far. Deutschland/Germany, 日本/Japan, 한국/South Korea, and the UK all emitted only 1/2 the carbon of the those three, slightly less than Россия/Russia. I was a little surprised that Japan, with its amazing public transit system, was almost as bad as Germany and worse than Britain. Among the rich countries, the two standouts are France and Sverige/Sweden, both emitting less than 1/3 of the carbon of the USA and 2/3 that of Germany. 中国/China's output in 2003 was 1/6 that of the USA. Tho that figure is increasing rapidly, it will not even rival France's any time soon. Brasil emitted less than half as much as China, and India and Indonesia slightly less than Brasil.

Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2004. There's a lot of good information on US greenhouse gases in here. Carbon is responsible for 85 percent of the total share (all numbers are weighted according to how powerful each greenhouse gas is), with methane and nitrous oxide accounting for most of the rest. An overwhelming majority of the carbon is, of course, produced by burning fossil fuels. The biggest sector consuming fossil fuels is transportation (33 percent), with private vehicles accounting for over 60 percent of the total. The other fossil fuel culprits: industrial (28 percent), residential (21 percent), and commercial (17 percent). Burning oil for mainly transportation uses and burning coal to produce electricity are the main carbon producers, each accounting for around 40 percent of the total.

From these numbers and the UN and U Chicago studies above, it should be clear that the two main things Americans can do as individuals to fight global warming are to stop eating meat and other animal products, and to stop driving. But it remains the case that these two have small shares in the total production of greenhouse gases, together accounting for perhaps 25 percent of greenhouse gases. The solution to global warming must involve an organized political movement to force much stricter emissions standards and much higher prices for greenhouse gas-producing consumption, as well as more efficient and less individual consumption.

Freedom to invest is really just like free speech

I went to a U Chicago protest today demanding that the university divest from companies involved in supporting the Sudanese government because of its involvement in the ethnic violence in Darfur. This issue doesn't really do much for me - I generally think Americans should concentrate on preventing their own government from killing hundreds of thousands of people before they go crusading against other governments. And the actual investments at stake are fairly minor; divesting would be mostly symbolic. But the divestment activism seems to be the biggest campaign on campus, and I think the principle is important. First, the university should not be free to invest in companies that are complicit in gross human rights violations. And second, the university should be accountable to the people that make up the community.

Instead, the administration and board of trustees have argued that if they give in to this political pressure, then they will have abandoned their duty to maintain an atmosphere of open discussion. Needless to say, this is a bizarre argument meant to provide only minimal pretense for retaining the administration/board of trustees' autonomy from the university community and to avoid the slippery slope of permitting open debate on what the university should do with its money. Divest from Sudan today, what's next? Turn down money from the War Department? Spend money to ameliorate the vast expanse of poverty that surrounds the university?