Monday, December 27, 2010

Lies And Myths

I have come to see some of the almost blatant lies which have become the myths of advertising these days.

I grew up in the times of the “muscle car” and the “thrill of the open road” images in auto commercials. Ads at that time stressed getting out and driving just about everywhere one could go. I also remember that there was usually some small type at the bottom of the screen warning about a “closed course” and a “professional driver” which would indicate a less than typical driving experience. Young boys and even more “younger” thinking men fell for these clever slights of photography and images. They did so by buying cars which spent more time stuck in traffic than they ever saw on open road.

Car designs of the ‘60s and early ‘70s were moving through the aerodynamic styling of sweeping lines and “fins” to the constantly increasing size of engines and their resultant horsepower ratings. Gas was cheap (relatively) and the Interstate system was reaching a semblance of completeness, but the commercials still showed the particular model, alone on the road and usually winding through some spectacular scenery. Where do you find people in real life driving like that? Today’s commercials are still trying to sell the same thrill of whipping your new car through city streets and open country roads, free of all other traffic or impediments. Why don’t you try that some morning, on the way to work along Nicholasville Rd?

My dad would love to take the family for a ride in the country on Sunday’s. I think that I learned a lot about local geography and history while doing so. We would drive for a few hours and end up at some interesting state park or other small attraction, grab a bite to eat and then head back home. Before the Interstates, this was an all day thing but eventually it took less time although we went farther. These days it is almost a chore to head much farther out of town than 30 or 40 miles. My trips to Louisville or Cincinnati are budgeted for well in advance.

Today, I heard a radio commercial which encouraged folks to get out an drive, to see sights up and down our Interstates, to get off on our back roads and visit’s the remote locations of Kentucky. It was our Tourism industry at work. Where do you think that they will be when gas passes $5 a gallon? Oh right, I forgot. I wrote the other day about our wonderful electric vehicles which we will be driving soon. Our remote tourism locations, in the usually pristine countryside, will all be equipped with charging stations (and not more than 40-80 miles apart). I guess that I shouldn’t say anything about the massive power lines which will need to cut through the landscape to supply these charging stations. Then again, maybe not.

Have you seen the ad campaign by Kentucky-American Water about their “gift” of the property which holds Lakeside Golf Course and Jacobson Park? Next week they are claiming that they will make a New Year’s present of it to the City. What a crock.

They held the prospect of that property being developed as a threat over the citizens of Lexington during the “negotiations” of condemnation proceedings back in 2005. The “settlement”, which in my opinion was a capitulation, agreed to was for the KAWC to hand over the recreation property (that so many had grown up thinking was city property) in return for not continuing or even considering such condemnation actions in the future. They are just abiding by their agreement, but if it makes them look good, at a time that they really need to do so, then so much the better. If KAWC were really interested in doing what is best for the people of Central Kentucky, then their corporate decisions would be based on the social needs of the customers and not the capital needs of the shareholders. The myth here is that private corporate decisions are better that government mis-management, while both may be equally dangerous.

How about the idea that our “smart phones” and their “apps” are so much smarter than we are? Yet for all their smart features, they spread more personal information than a neighborhood gossip, its just that their facts are true. If you are using some of the more popular “apps” and you have entered any personal information, then it may be safe to say that several online tracking companies have a file on you(and know more about you than you think. Your location is being tracked, automatically, by most of the top “apps” used today. If you are texting, tweeting or surfing the net for extended periods of time, then there are several companies who know your daily routines, maybe better than you do.

These companies are not (currently) allowed to single out your information, but it may be aggregated into similar profiles and built into a “demographic”. A demographic is usually fairly generic, but these people know where you live, where you work, where you play, what you eat and drink, what you like to do for kicks and many other things. You can be tracked 24/7/365, and you gave somebody permission to do so whether you know it or not. You cannot turn it off even if you wanted to.

Our smart phones are creating the myth that we can get more things done quicker and therefore we are getting smarter. I feel that if we let the phones do it all for us, we will forget how to do it when we don’t have the phones for a while. It is like having that GPS with turn-by-turn or step-by-step directions and no one will remember the way to anywhere should the batteries fail. I learned to get places by trial-and-error which most young folk have no patience for these days, but I get there just the same and most times faster than the GPS.

I don’t have a cell phone, much less a “smart phone” and I don’t have OnStar in my car (that I know of). I also know that I usually will NOT be the only one on the road when I drive somewhere and someday Jacobson Park may feel like Woodland Park, just an over used area that used to be a ways out of town. And I know that I don’t buy into all the myths and lies told on television.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Some Milestones

This past week has been one for milestones, especially in transportation.

To begin with, there was the first delivery of a Nissan Leaf to a customer in Redwood City, California. The Leaf is the first mass produced electric car which is priced for the average person, around $33 thousand a pop but with state and federal rebates the final cost is about $20K. I have discussed electric autos before and I still believe that the controversy of “range anxiety” will still cause some folks to hesitate on such autos. Eighty miles on an 8 hour charge just doesn’t seem like a lot.

The new owner, a west coast tech guy, had a charging outlet installed in his garage last Friday after he was informed that he was chosen to be the initial owner. Not bad for a first car although he has some experience with electric bikes and his commute is only about twenty miles round trip.

Then came the delivery of the first Chevy Volt. This car is not totally electric since it has a gasoline engine to assist when the battery pack runs out. The Volt has an estimated range of 40 miles, about half that of the Leaf, on a full 8 hour charge and is best re-charged from a 220-volt outlet for that length of time. I somehow see that as slow cooking a roast in the oven EVERY night in addition to the regular cooking and HVAC usage. I am not sure that my KU budget can stand that.

The first owner here, came on the other side of the country - in New Jersey. In this case, the buyer is a retired airline pilot who traded in an older Prius for the Volt. After a career behind the controls of, what I consider a very inefficient travel mode, he appears to save the planet by driving more fuel efficient vehicles. The cost of the Volt runs a bit higher than the Leaf at approximately $41 thousand (or $34.5K after rebates) and charging from a regular household outlet will take much longer.

Our new owner of the Volt did interrupt his trip to Florida to fly back home so that he could take delivery, but then he left it at the dealer’s lot and flew back to Florida for the rest of his vacation. So much for his save the planet attitude.

Then we come to the 10th anniversary of America’s “high speed” rail, the Acela.

Amtrak’s attempt at high speed train travel is still going strong despite the efforts of previous administrations to gut both Acela and Amtrak. The Acela service has survived and even become quite popular as an alternative to both I-95 and flying in the Northeast Corridor. They have carried more than 3.2 million passengers in fiscal 2010 and rider-ship is up substantially in the past five years. It will be interesting to see what they figures do with increasing animosity toward TSA screenings at airports.

Acela’s passengers have generally welcomed the possibility of faster service with some hoping for similar service to Japan or Europe. In this business world, time is money and traveling from downtown to downtown by rail(particularly with real high speed rail) will be done nearly as fast as airport to airport is today. Amtrak has now captured 55 percent of the Boston-New York air-rail market now that the electrification, long delayed by the Reagan and Bush(I) White Houses, was completed in 1999.

Paul Krugman recently noted that it has become obvious that America, once the nation of builders, now cannot build those projects of heroic infrastructure any more. The average age of our “Capital Stock” (our structures, equipment and software) is rising, modestly in the Residential and Non-Residential elements but drastically in the Government items. Our highways and Interstates (Government) are decaying as are our railroads (Non-Residential) just not at the same rate. Our bridges and tunnels need replacing but we claim that it is too expensive.

I wonder where we will be on Acela's 20th anniversary.

Friday, December 10, 2010

More On Wayfinding Signs

I wrote about the new way-finding signs back in the middle of October. Then it was about my feelings on the arrangement of the destinations and how they differ from the standards of the Federal government. Today, I wonder about the decision to put all the locations on ONE single panel of the sign and not separate panels for each.

When these signs were first discussed, I thought that they were envisioned as standard sized, individual destination panels which could be assembled into a larger unit and displayed on some kind of a support system. This would allow new destinations to be added should they be built and changes in the naming of those which sometimes do so.

This arrangement was clearly NOT followed and now we are beginning to see the fallacy of not doing so.

These signs are designed specifically for automobile traffic, even those in the downtown area. They are only readable from the side facing the oncoming traffic. Should you be walking along the new sidewalks we just built, but going the opposite way of the autos, these signs are useless. Pedestrians can use these signs only a small portion of the time.

I have already pointed out that they lack any approximate distances or correct order of destination, but for pedestrians this is crucial information. The signs out around New Circle Rd. (definitely auto-centric) and the one right downtown (should be urban friendly) are identical.

Lexington really does want to expand its downtown destinations and points of interest, but these signs are designed to be a point in time system. Where is the flexibility to add new points, especially those which would fall in between existing ones? What would happen if one of the points were to undergo a naming change?

A name change? Well we will see about that very soon. It looks like our Lexington Legends will be renaming the old ball park next year when the agreement with Applebee’s expires. I guess that no one saw that coming.

I have also noticed a lack of any destinations other than historical or entertainment type points of interest. Do we not want anyone to find our civic or legislative buildings, specifically for those who are new in town?

I heard someone, the other day, refer to these signs as “for the WEG”. I believe that this proposal was in the Downtown Master Plan as something that should be done and not just for downtown. Most of the proposed signs were not up for the WEG, nor are they all up today. The thoughts behind this project meant well but the way that it has been implemented leaves a little to be desired. The money has been spent (and mostly out of town) but it may not be too late to salvage the entire program. Maybe some of our local sign makers can suggest a way to “not throw out the baby with the bathwater” and, using the current poles and bases, design a better solution. I don’t mean do it gratis either.

If we are going to do a way finding system, then lets do it right.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Would You Like To Be Sued For Growing Food?

I do have a great interest in urban agriculture and growing more of our food locally, but I hope that nothing like what happened in Clarkston, Ga. ever happens here.

A local landscaper bought a piece of property, upon which former owners had grown vegetables -at a profit- and set about raising a hobby garden, in the back yard. True it was a nearly two acre back yard, but it was a hobby garden. I know several folks, who if the had almost two aces, would put in a wide variety of hobby scenarios (flower gardens, outdoor model trains, etc.) and I believe that all of them would be legal. But this gentleman raised so much edible crops that he couldn't give it all away and resorted to local markets.

That is where the local zoning laws got him. His land was producing too much for the zone. His lot was apparently considered a commercial operation and therefore, not permitted in the zone. Is it possible that such a thing could happen here?

A former neighbor has a house and they own the vacant lot next door. There used to be another vacant lot on the other side, and this neighbor maintained gardens in both spaces, as well as the back half of a parcel approximately a half a block away. This fellow's passion was flowers but I remember some vegetables along the way. None of these spaces could be thought of as commercial but they could supply a good portion of the surrounding households with nutrition if it needed to. Fact is, I don't think that it went afoul of the law, either then or now.

In the case in Ga., the gentleman was eventually allowed to get a zone change, but has been saddled with the expensive fines and penalties as well as the cost of the zone change.

To those of you, who like me, wish to see more urban agriculture and more locally grown food, we must be cognizant of the laws and the possibilities under them. We must also strive to make them allow for future situations and not just restrict past abuses (real or imagined). Zoning laws, by and large, are not written with backyard food production in mind.
While many food activists cite urban agriculture as crucial to establishing locally sourced food systems, zoning laws present challenges. What distinguishes outlaw tomato plants from a legitimate commercial operation is not always clear.
Another point of contention could be the raising of chickens(see what they are doing here), which I don't think is against any local zoning laws currently, although most herd animals are prohibited. The keeping of horses, even inside the Urban Services Area limitation may be allowed.
Cluck (a Sarasota Fl. chicken advocacy group), which has been active for a year and a half and has about 300 supporters, says chickens would make Sarasota more attractive for a younger, hipper crowd. Children who think their food grows at the supermarket can see where it really comes from.
Where should we Lexingtonian's stand on this subject?