Back to the Future

It’s time to check up on a few items we’ve addressed previously here on the blog that are back in the news this week.

It’s time to check up on a few items we’ve addressed previously here on the blog that are back in the news this week …

Transit ridership is still setting records … Here in Boston, the MBTA transit system has just set a modern record for ridership. You know those old pictures of 19th century men with bowler hats and mustaches hanging off the sides of trolleys? Or of men in fedoras and women laden with shopping bags crowded on subway platforms? Well, the T is carrying more people today than it did way back then. (Though, to be fair, ridership may have been higher for a brief period in 1946, but still.) And Boston isn’t alone. The Boston Globe reports that transit systems in New York and Philadelphia are bursting at the seams as well, while the American Public Transportation Association reports that transit ridership increased in the first half of 2011 by 1.7 percent nationwide despite a bum economy and a devastating wave of transit service cuts and fare hikes that have swept the nation.

Of course, here in Boston, officials are celebrating these new ridership records by … teeing up a round of potential fare hikes and service cuts.

Young people are still doing unusual things … We’ve been writing a lot about changes in the transportation and housing preferences of young people. Now comes new data from the Brookings Institution that shows a dramatic change in young people’s migration patterns before and after the Great Recession. Between 2005 and 2007, the top cities attracting 25 to 34 year olds were places like Riverside, Phoenix and Atlanta – all booming Sun Belt towns characterized by sprawl. Between 2008 and 2010, however, these cities fell way down the list, replaced by cities such as Denver, Houston, Dallas, Seattle and Washington, D.C. And cities such as L.A., New York, Boston and San Francisco that were bleeding young people in the last decade have seen the exodus slow or stop.

How much do these trends in migration patterns have to do with the economy? A lot, probably. But this rapid shift in migration patterns is yet more evidence that the trends of the past are unlikely to be a very good guide when it comes to predicting our future transportation needs.

Fukushima is still a mess … Radioactive hot spots are popping up more than 100 miles from the Fukushima nuclear reactor. Short-lived radioactive isotopes are popping up in air samples from the number 2 reactor at the stricken complex, a tell-tale sign that nuclear fission is still happening. Meanwhile, Japanese officials have put forward a 30-yeartimeline for cleaning up the plant. In short, Fukushima may no longer be spewing large amounts of radiation into the atmosphere, but the situation there is still far from “under control.”

The complexity involved in cleaning up the mess at Fukushima is akin to playing three-dimensional chess while reciting the Gettysburg Address and blasting speed metal on your iPod – it is a challenge that is likely to keep a whole generation of engineers plenty busy. All of which is a reminder of why relying on complex, inherently dangerous technologies such as nuclear power (and deepwater oil drilling) is really best avoided.

Global warming is still real … News flash: scientist reviews global temperature records and finds that global warming is actually happening! That’s not news, but what is news is that the scientist is Richard Muller, a former global warming skeptic, and that his research was partially funded by the Charles Koch Foundation, named after one-half of the famed anti-environmental Koch brothers. (Perhaps the Koch brothers would like to pay me a few hundred grand or so to confirm that  my wife’s chocolate chip cookies are indeed tasty … I’m deeply skeptical!)

Let’s hope that these new findings help move us past the point of debating whether global warming is real and toward debating what we do about it. Let’s also hope that the years Muller and his colleagues spent reinventing the wheel of climate research didn’t contribute to delaying action on climate beyond the point at which my children and the planet will needlessly suffer.


Tony Dutzik

Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.