Monday, August 2, 2010


With the TRB submission deadline come and gone, I feel like I have some breathing (and blogging) room. The next task is dissertation proposing. This time it's for real, though, since I have something of a deadline associated with advancing to candidacy. The high-level theme I'm thinking about is something like complications associated with good ideas. It's a little contrived since some of the work has already been done and I need to weave a common thread. I've got work on environmental justice in AB 32, and work on the greenhouse gas emissions/land use implications of ARRA projects. Finally, I've got a funded proposal starting up in fall regarding a general disconnect between good transport policy ideas and a failure to put them into practice despite a lot of white papers, research, and talk.

What's underlying all of this is my exposure to Willem Vanderburg's preventive approaches in undergrad. Unlike most (all?) graduate students, I can still say that my graduate application's statement of purpose is highlight relevant.
My undergraduate education has left me with pressing questions related to the practice of professional engineering. If we accept that engineering activities aim to improve the quality of life, to promote environmental sustainability, and to ensure economic well-being, how is it that we find ourselves, faced with many threats to our very life support systems? Why are economic viability and environmental well-being so often viewed as fundamentally irreconcilable? How might I address these problems through my own engineering practices? In my graduate education, using the tools of rigorous engineering analysis and academic research, I plan to seek answers to these and related questions.
I'm doing okay, except what's happened is that I've drifter further and further from engineering practice to the point where I'm doing social science to get the answers that I want -- this is a little beside the point since I've got academic support for these methods.

The point is that I read a couple of things this morning that brought up a Vanderburgian idea that I touch in in the above paragraph. Vanderburg points out that we're often forced to choose between environmental and economic objectives. (I.e. we're told that if we prioritize the environment then we will surely lose jobs. Q.v. the prop 23 debate.) Jobs (and by extension, the economy) often win out.

A corollary is that economic expansion and job creation trump not only environmental objectives, but also local visions of and for the economy.

Caltrans has a proposal to widen 101 through Humboldt County in the name of economic development thereby eliminating truck restrictions -- widening would allow trucks to travel from the Port of Oakland to Eureka in ~275 miles instead of ~700.

Critical Mass by John Whitelegg talks about Cornwall (a town in Southwest England) that was being pressured to "improve" highway access in the late 90s.

In both cases it seems like pressure is being exerted mostly by political actors, while actual residents are/were opposed. In Cornwall, residents enjoyed their remoteness, in Eureka, it seems like some enjoy having difficult truck access since it appears to be keeping out the likes of Walmart).

What is the Caltrans role in all of this? What is the language being used to justify the proposal? Are they presenting themselves as objective observers, simply responding to the economic development needs of the population? How does this relate to Bruce Seely's work on the Bureau of Public Roads and their role in the development of the (pre-Interstate) US highway system?

Why are folks so afraid of envisioning alternative economies and livelihoods?

No comments: