Archive for May, 2009

Hunger in America

Saturday, May 30th, 2009

Breadline USAMy friend Sasha Abramsky has just come out with a book about hunger in the United States, called Breadline USA: The Hidden Scandal of American Hunger and How to Fix It. I picked up a copy yesterday, and while I’m only about 50 pages into it so far, I can already highly recommend it to anyone interested in “food insecurity” (to use a current buzzword) and the myriad ways that increasing inequality has bred increasing hardship in modern society.

There have been a number of worthy and well-known books about American food culture in recent years, such as Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and those two in particular were revelatory to many of us in their own ways. Those books, however, tend to focus on the perverse consequences, both social and medical, of an abundance of cheap calories, due to corn-based industrial agriculture, fast food chains, and so on.

That’s an important story, to be sure, but Sasha’s book addresses the flip side of our food problem, which is not a surplus of affordable food, but a deficit, and the fact that growing numbers of Americans—including people with full-time jobs—struggle to feed themselves and their families. As housing costs, medical costs, transportation costs, and food costs increase, while wages stagnate (or vanish altogether as jobs are lost), more and more people are forced to choose between medicine and protein, or between paying for their housing or paying for their dinner.

To say that Breadline USA is about food is like saying that Anna Karenina is about adultery: while food insecurity is the thread that stitches the book together, one can’t discuss hunger without delving into the larger economic forces that have put us in a situation where people working full-time at low-wage jobs often rely on food banks to keep their refrigerators minimally stocked. It’s no fluke that the first chapter is more about energy costs than food, describing the difficulties faced by residents of rural Siskiyou County, in the shadow of Mount Shasta, as transportation costs rise, public transportation is skeletal at best, and jobs in one’s own town are often nonexistent. Food banks, pantries, and soup kitchens these days don’t only serve the homeless or the unemployed—more and more, they are the last resort of the working poor, retirees, or others who had previously prided themselves on never having had to accept a handout from anyone.

The book is a compelling mixture of on-the-ground reportage backed up with data and policy discussion, interspersed with personal narrative—a combination that will be familiar to anyone who has read Sasha’s earlier books on the criminal justice system or voting rights. The bulk of the reporting for the book was done before the implosion of the housing bubble caused our house-of-cards economic system to teeter so frighteningly, and it’s safe to say that the hardships faced by the poor and the lower middle class are now much more dire than they were when the book went to press, as jobs continue to disappear and government safety nets fray. You can get a taste of what Breadline USA is all about by listening to Sasha’s interview at Truthdig or reading some of the articles at his website or for the Guardian newspaper (California readers may be interested in his Guardian articles on our state’s economic problems as well).

Spendthrift BART directors vote to raise fares

Thursday, May 28th, 2009

As I feared and warned about just two weeks ago, BART’s profligate board of directors just voted to raise fares six months earlier than planned, citing budget deficits. See, it’s okay to waste money, because you can always get transit-dependent citizens (along with BART employees) to pay for it. Never mind that those citizens are also suffering in this lousy economy, and that the reason many of them use public transportation is because they can’t afford to own cars, and that for environmental reasons we should be doing everything we can encourage, not discourage, use of public transit. Here is CBS5’s early story on the vote:

Bay Area Rapid Transit riders can expect to start paying more to ride and park this summer as the transit agency tries to close a $250 million deficit projected over the next four years.

BART directors voted Thursday to adopt three fare hikes that will go into effect on July 1.

At the end of a lengthy discussion, BART directors voted to raise basic train fares by 6.1 percent and to add 25 cents to the minimum fare for short trips. They also voted to charge an extra $2 surcharge for all trips to the San Francisco International Airport.

The 25-cent increase in the minimum fare will increase the base fare from $1.50 to $1.75.

BART directors also voted to begin charging a $1 parking fee at eight additional stations. Parking fees are already in place at some BART stations.

BART had not been slated to increase its fares until Jan. 1, but directors voted to move up the fare increases by six months because of BART’s large budget deficit.

Union contracts expire on June 30 and BART is also likely to ask for significant concessions from employees to help make up for the budget shortfall.

I haven’t heard yet whether Lynette Sweet, the BART director who recently said that raising fares to SFO would be “hard to swallow” and a “hardship,” voted for the fare hike.

It was pretty clear that something like this was coming, but I thought that the BART directors would wait a while, for fear that it would appear unseemly to raise fares two weeks after deciding to waste half a billion dollars on a train-in-the-sky to Oakland Airport. Apparently they had no such qualms, however.

News Flash: BART director doesn’t want to raise fares to the airport (as long as the airport isn’t OAK)

Saturday, May 16th, 2009

BART is considering adding 2 to 3 dollars more to fares going to San Francisco Airport, in order alleviate the pressure to raise regular fares (there is already $1.50 extra tacked on to BART fares when your ride starts or stops at SFO). Here is what BART director Lynette Sweet told the Contra Costa Times about the proposal:

Lynette Sweet, a BART board member from San Francisco, said she is concerned the sharp increase for trips to the airport would be too much.

“It becomes hard to swallow, and to get people to buy into an increase that large,” she said.

A steep increase in fares to the airport would be a hardship for people who work there, she said.

You couldn’t make this stuff up. Sweet voted on Thursday for the plan that will charge people taking BART to Oakland International Airport $6 to get from the BART station to the terminal via an elevated people mover. BART’s next step in getting their train-in-the-sky built is to persuade the Port of Oakland, which operates the Oakland Airport, to pitch in $44 million to the project. Of course, the Port is as broke as BART is, so how does BART propose that the Port come up with the $44 million? By adding a new fee to every plane ticket out of OAK!

A trip from, say, SF civic center to SFO would cost $7.35 if they raised the SFO surcharge by 2 dollars, and $8.35 if they raised it by 3. A trip from SF civic center to OAK would cost $9.55 if the people mover gets built. With a higher SFO surcharge, the most expensive trip on BART would be from Pittsburg/Bay Point to SFO, at $10.40 with a $3.50 surcharge, or $11.40 with a $4.50 surcharge. A trip from Pittsburg/Bay Point to OAK will be $10.35 if they charge $6 for the train-in-the-sky. And that’s before you add in the fee that BART wants the Port of Oakland to add to every ticket out of Oakland Airport. And keep in mind that Pittsburg/Bay Point is in the East Bay, so Oakland is the closer of the two airports.

I wish the Contra Costa Times reporter had asked Sweet (who represents some parts of the East Bay as well) why charging riders 8 to 10 bucks to get to SFO would be “hard to swallow” and a “hardship,” while charging riders 8 to 10 bucks to get to OAK, plus adding an unspecified new fee to the plane tickets of every passenger who flies out of OAK, is apparently nothing to worry about.

Sweet is the chairperson of the BART’s Finance, Budget and Internal Audit committee. I wondered how the chair of that committee could be so haphazard and irresponsible when it comes to managing BART’s funds, but when I looked at her official bio on the BART website, it suddenly all made sense: before going into public “service,” Sweet had a long career as a bank executive. No wonder she thinks it’s perfectly okay to gamble with BART’s money, and expect regular schmoes to pick up the tab if the gamble doesn’t pay off. I’m glad she’s suddenly concerned about overcharging air travellers and airport workers, but I wish she had discovered that concern about 24 hours beforehand when she was voting on the OAC.

Increased blight in Oakland, here we come

Friday, May 15th, 2009

An excerpt from the city’s estimate of how proposed budget cuts would affect the Public Works Department’s ability to provide services (“FTE” stands for “full-time equivalent”):

Key Impacts and Mitigations
• Park Maintenance: No routine maintenance at 212 locations (mini-parks, neighborhood parks, special use parks, parking lots, plazas, medians and streetscapes) Remaining 60.27 FTE will provide routine maintenance at 104 “priority” locations.
Tree Services: Pruning, planting, watering will only be done in emergency situations. Remaining 15.0 FTE will remove hazardous tree conditions.
Litter Enforcement Program: Remaining 3.0 FTE will be assigned to each Police Area. Activities will continue but to a lesser extent.
Street Maintenance: Speed bump installations will be eliminated. Remaining 47.0 FTE will continue activities at reduced levels—base repair, pothole repair, crack sealing, guard rail repair, fending, sidewalk repair.
Traffic Maintenance: Street signs and striping will impacted. Remaining 20.0 FTE will continue activities (street sign repair and replacement, and street and curb striping) at reduced levels.
Designated Downtown Cleaning: Elimination of manual sweeping and hand/power cleaning of sidewalks will increase visibility of litter, dirt and grime. Remaining KOCB crews will continue street sweeping, litter container service, illegal dumping removal and graffiti removal.
City Facilities Custodial and Maintenance: Painting of city facilities will be limited to graffiti abatement. Some minor CIP will be eliminated and remaining function will be centralized with CEDA/Dept of Engineering and Construction. Custodial services at Civic Center will be reduced, including fewer daily cleanings and elimination of office move support.

The picture is pretty similar when you look at the list for the Parks & Rec department, libraries (my local branch is likely to only be open 2 or 3 days a week), etc. A pdf copy of the slides detailing the proposed budget cuts by department, which were shown at a budget town hall on Wednesday evening, is available at the indispensable A Better Oakland.

I’m not necessarily criticizing these proposed cuts—I haven’t yet read and thought enough about the options to know whether they are the best solution to our budget woes—but it does paint a pretty dramatic picture of how screwed Oakland’s government is.

For anyone who has driver a car or ridden a bike down, say, 12th St. near Harrison, reading that street maintenance activities will continue “at a reduced level” will send a shiver up your spine—or more accurately, will knock your spine out of whack and send you hobbling to a chiropractor.

As for “no routine maintenance” at about 2/3 of the 300 neighborhood parks, medians, streetscapes, etc., I have said several times here before before that since we can’t rely on City Hall to keep Oakland looking clean and nice, it’s more important than ever for residents to take matters into their own hands by adopting vacant lots, median strips, local parks, etc. Studies have shown that a little bit of blight removal can yield a lot of benefits.

The Colors of the Oakland Waterfront

Thursday, May 14th, 2009

I’m not sure what was going on with me today, but a lot of the photos I took on the way home from work tended toward the abstract. Here are four, and I collected a handful of other new shots (plus two older ones) together at a new set on Flickr called “Abstraction.”

Blue

Yellow

Vent

Sea and Sky

The Train to Nowhere?

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

If you’ve ever taken AirBART from the Coliseum BART Station to the Oakland airport, then you know the service is pretty slow and unimpressive, especially considering the $3 fare each way. So you might think that public transit advocates in and around Oakland would be delighted by BART’s proposal to build a faster connection between the BART station and the airport terminals. Under the plan, the AirBART bus service would be replaced by an elevated people mover that would whisk passengers at a rapid clip from the BART station to the airport. Sounds great, right?

Wrong! The fact that local transportation activists and bloggers seem to be unanimous in their condemnation of BART’s proposal for the Oakland Airport Connector is an indication of how problematic the plan is. To start with, BART would have to borrow $150 million to fund the $522 million project. Yes, this is the same BART that is scheduled to raise fares by over 5% next year, and is threatening that it may have to raise them even more to make up for shortfalls in their budget. So while the citizens of the Bay Area who rely on BART to get around day in and day out are being asked to shell out even more for fares, BART’s directors want the system to go deeper into debt to fund their longtime dream of a people mover that will soar above an East Oakland neighborhood. (Gotta protect those air travellers from the Oakland riffraff!)

You might ask: Well, won’t the train at least provide a top-notch service to passengers, taking them from BART to the terminal quickly and easily? No! While the proposed connector will get from the BART station to the airport much more quickly than AirBART, the $522 million budget will only pay for a single stop at the airport, between the two existing terminals, and on the far side of all the car and bus dropoff lanes. So while passengers will get to the airport quickly, they will end up farther away from the terminals than they currently do with AirBART, which stops at each terminal, and which only requires passengers to cross a couple of lanes of traffic to get to the gate. If they build a third terminal at OAK, as there is talk of doing, then passengers will have to walk even farther from the train to reach it.

On top of those issues, what seems worst about BART’s proposal to me is that they expect to charge passengers $6 each way for the airport connection (that’s on top of the BART fare that they have already paid). That high cost might be defensible if there was no better option as a replacement for AirBART, but in this case, there is another option. In a matter of a few weeks, the local transportation advocacy group TransForm put together a Rapid Bus proposal that would cost a tenth of BART’s proposal, would require no new debt, would be quicker to implement, would serve more people, would be almost as speedy, could pick up passengers near the hotels and businesses on Hegenberger Road if desired, could stop directly in front of each terminal, and best of all, could be absolutely free for passengers, because the money saved by not building an elevated people mover would allow BART to fund operational costs into perpetuity.

It’s frankly pretty sad that a group of activists seem to have put together a more appealing plan in a few weeks than BART was able to put together in decades of planning (an airport connector has been in the works forever; in 2000, Alameda County voters passed a measure to fund a $130 million connector, which has morphed into today’s proposal, which provides worse service than the original proposal at $400 million higher cost—and has lower ridership estimates to boot).

I hope the BART directors don’t underestimate the appeal of a free shuttle from BART to the Airport. $6 might not seem like much in comparison to the cost of a plane ticket, but I think the psychological difference between a free shuttle and a $6 people mover is enormous, especially for the price-sensitive people who are presumably likeliest to use BART to get to the airport in the first place.

I’m notoriously frugal, to the point where I once rode my bike 10 miles to the airport in the pre-dawn darkness, and locked it there for several days, all because BART doesn’t run all night and I was too cheap to pay for a cab or a shuttle. Another time, after returning from a trip, I walked from the airport to work in San Leandro because I didn’t want to wait for a bus, then dish out $1.75 for a ride of only a couple of miles (also, I just like to walk). So I might not be a typical case, but when you charge riders $6 for a 3-mile shuttle, on top of the roughly $2-$6 that they have already paid for bus and BART fare to get to Coliseum BART, you are giving people a pretty big incentive to just skip BART altogether and take a cab or a door-to-door shuttle.

At the last meeting of the BART board in late April, they reluctantly agreed to table the airport connector proposal until tomorrow, in order to study other options more closely (imagine that: studying other options closely before going $150 million deeper into debt). That’s when TransForm leapt into action and produced their counterproposal. If BART opts for the $6 elevated tramway instead of the free high-speed shuttle buses, I suspect it will not be on the merits, but rather because they have had their sights set on a sexy high-speed people mover for decades, and are too blinded by that long dream to weigh the pros and cons of the various options.

Like a lot of other people, I prefer trains to buses for vague, possibly irrational reasons (I basically never take the bus; if I’m crossing the bay, I will take BART, and if I’m staying in the East Bay, then I will usually either walk or ride a bike). So I understand the urge to build a train instead of replacing AirBART with an improved rapid bus service. In this case, however, the activists and bloggers have persuaded me that the costs (both to BART and to its passengers) of building the train in the sky are way too high to justify, especially given the limitations of the service that it would provide. I won’t be able to attend tomorrow’s BART board meeting where they will be deciding whether to go ahead with their grandiose plans, but local transit activists promise to be there in force, and I hope the BART directors are able to set aside their longterm fantasies and pursue a less flashy, but more practical, option instead.

Today’s ride home from work, in four photographs

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

El Gato Negro

El Gato Negro, one of my favorite bars that I’ve never set foot in.

TV!

Two horsemen.

Color Swatches

Nine and a half headless clothehorsewomen.

Bonanza

And a newly discovered bird! I thought my little bird project might have run its course, and I nearly missed this one today since it wasn’t immediately obvious that there is a bird up there at the top of the sign. The hunt continues.

Translation, please

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

Now that Washington Mutual has been fully digested by Chase, Chase has blanketed the West Coast with billboards in order to introduce itself to us. Apparently I’m too dense to understand this one. As a cyclist, should I be flattered, or offended?

Translation, please.

Who owns…?

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

In a review of Milk in the New York Review of Books (yes, it’s from March, and yes, I’m a little behind in my reading), Hilton Als asks the following question:

One may find oneself powerfully moved by the images of candles flickering on that cold November night in San Francisco, and the close-ups of various stunned faces. But the question remains: Who owns Harvey Milk, and the rights to his hard-won, unequivocally “out” gayness?

But the question remains: When will we stop fighting about who “owns” public figures and historical events? I distinctly remember when I first took a dislike to Cynthia Ozick, the novelist and critic: it was when she wrote a 1997 essay in the New Yorker called “Who Owns Anne Frank?” I’m reluctant to summarize it because I haven’t read it in years, and I no longer own Quarrel & Quandary, the collection in which it was reprinted, and the essay doesn’t seem to be available for free online. But when I read “Who Owns Anne Frank,” I had the impression that Ozick was really asking, “Who Owns the Holocaust,” and that her own preferred answer was, “I, Cynthia Ozick, own the Holocaust.”

Perhaps I’m being terribly unfair to Ozick, and with my lousy memory, I probably shouldn’t criticize something I read so long ago, but my negative reaction to that essay pretty much soured me on Ozick forever. That’s a shame, since I agree with her about so much (we’re both fans of the late W. G. Sebald, for example; heck, I even agree with her distaste for the sentimentalized, redemptive depictions of the Holocaust that seem to predominate these days).

In any case, I look forward to the day when our most esteemed periodicals no longer feel the need to ask who owns historical figures and their legacies.

The Grateful Tree

Sunday, May 10th, 2009

The Grateful Tree

A small tree near my apartment. The small print says, “what are you grateful for today?” Sharpie and hangable paper tags provided.