In our current column at (“Size Really Doesn’t Matter: Autonomobility”) we profile the wisdom of WaPo Car Culture columnist Warren Brown. For more good Brown see today’s Column “Free to Speak Truth to Power.”

Giving the editors of Outlook their due, Tilman and Hill do a nice job in “Corn Can’t Solve Our Problem: Grass Is Greener Than Corn for Fuel.” We have been following Mayor George Fitch’s bio-fuel plant idea and his advisors seem to come to the same conclusions.

Brown put his finger on the bigger problem. Governance practitioners, especially elected ones avoid making the rational choices.


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  1. Groveton Avatar

    Jim, Jim, Jim …

    You don’t really believe this point from Mr. Risse:

    “In the short term, the only way to reduce oil consumption at all and carbon emissions significantly is to change human settlement patterns.”.

    Driving cars with better fuel efficiency reduces oil consumption.

    You yourself have repeatedly said that the increased fuel efficiency of the new and next generation of cars might render the gas tax economically irrelevant.

    Changing human settlement patterns is a good idea but not a near term solution to anything. Driving cars which use less gas is a good, near term idea.

    Mr. Risse quotes executives from General Motors. These are the same people who said hybrids wouln’t sell in the US.

    Quote Toyota. Quote Honda. Quote anybody except GM. Ask them only how they managed to take ANOTHER ten year nap while the consumer trends changed.

    Stop the Robbery. Throw out the incumbents – regardless of party.

  2. Groveton Avatar

    And from the WaPo article:

    “Even more surprising were the greenhouse gas benefits. When high-diversity mixtures of native plants are grown on degraded soils, they remove carbon dioxide from the air. Much of this carbon ends up stored in the soil. In essence, mixtures of native plants gradually restore the carbon levels that degraded soils had before being cleared and farmed. This benefit lasts for about a century.”.

    Plant native grasses and use them for fuel?

    Thank goodness that the county governments in Nothern Virginia have approved large, low density subdivisions. They are all planted with native grasses:

    Blue grass
    Bent grass

    NOVA has solved the gas crisis, global warming and the terrorist menace – all by approving low density sub-divisions with large lawns of native grasses.

    We await the thanks of the nation.

  3. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Groveton, I see reform to human settlement patterns as a long-term solution to energy consumption, traffic congestion and other societal ills. Building stock turns over very slowly. The underlying infrastructure of roads and utilities turns over even more slowly. It will take decades, if not generations, to re-work what took decades and generations to put into place. But putting into place the right kind of development *now* will make a difference on the margins.

    I don’t believe that reforming human settlement patterns is the *only* solution to the kinds of problems we discuss on this blog. But it is a critical one. New technologies, pricing schemes, government reforms, etc. can take us only so far without fundamental change in human settlement patterns.

  4. Ray Hyde Avatar

    We could begin to make long term changes in settlement pattterns which might provide some reduction in energy consumption and traffic congestion only if we had solid evidence that one kind of development is better at this than another, and we therefore had something to aim for.

    So far, that evidence does not exist or it is in dispute. Even if we find the holy grail, the conditions for which it will be maximised are transitory. By the time we spend generations passing laws ordering future generations how to build the optimal society, the optimums will have changed.

    The best way to get the quickest and most effective change is for government to get out of it.

  5. Groveton Avatar

    Jim and Ray:

    I guess we all agree that changing human settlement patterns is the right thing to do but it’s more of a long term thing than a short term thing. Which, I suppose, begs the question as to what to do now.

    Let me tell you about a drive I took yesterday.

    Huntington Ave. is a short 2 or 3 mile long road just south of the City of Alexandria in Fairfax County. The residents of Huntington Ave are relatively poor people living in a relatively rich county. These people are the working class you hear the politicians talking about so often.

    I lived for several years on Huntington Ave while I was growing up. I thought it was a fine place then and I think it’s a fine place now.

    However, something very interesting happened while I was living on Huntington Ave and going to high school – they started building the Huntington Ave metro station at one end of that short street.

    I was off to college before the metro station was finished but the Huntington Ave scuttlebutt of 30 years ago was that the metro would forever change the avenue bringing high density housing, decent shopping. It was going to enrich those who owned their homes and run off those who rented.

    I had reason to drive back down Huntington Ave yesterday. The metro has been open for something like 27 years now.

    What was rumored to be inevitable is starting to happen – now!

    There is some high density housing (looks pretty swanky – especially by Huntington Ave standards) being built near the metro stop. Some of the old light industrial companies are gone although the lots are barren. There was even a boat shop which always amazed me since there is no navigable waterway nearby. It’s gone now too.

    However, most of the Avenue is still the same duplexes and bad strip malls it’s been since the mid 1970s.

    It seems like the metro station will eventually lead to a much nicer, higher density community. But, at this rate, it will literally take 50 years. It will also eventually force out the working class people who once lived there.

    So – my question to the people who post on Baconsrebellion:

    What should have happened back in my old ‘Hood?

    What should Fairfax County have done to capitalize on the new metro station back when it was new?

    And what should happen to the working class people who live on and near Huntington Ave? Should they just “go elsewhere” once the fancier, higher density, mixed use building is done? To get this new human development pattern to work on Huntington Ave you’d have to tear down the old duplexes. The only good reason for a developer to do this would be to build nicer, more expenisve housing which would generate a profit after he bought the duplexes to tear them down – no?

    How should this work?

  6. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Groveton — Interesting scenario and interesting questions. I don’t know the Huntington area, so I won’t speculate what took it so long to re-develop. The first question I would ask, though, is whether local zoning restrictions limited density or land uses in some way to make it less profitable for developers to re-make the neighborhood.

    As for the matter of people being displaced… Guess what: That’s the history of real estate. Every time a neighborhood gentrifies, low-income people get displaced. (But those who are fortunate enough to own real estate usually make a nice profit along the way). Neighborhoods are constantly going and down in value, appreciating and depreciating. That’s what you call a market economy.

    So, yes, people who can’t afford the rents should just move somewhere else. What’s the alternative? Prevent neighborhoods from improving? Let slums always remain slums?

    One thing you can be assured of — when free real estate markets exist, as they largely did before zoning — there will always be places for poor people to live. Rich people moving into their fancy new digs always leave something behind. Someone moves into those houses, and someone else moves into their houses. Edward Banfield described the process in “Unheavenly City” in the early 1970s. It’s trickle-down economics — but it’s always worked.

    What does NOT work is government imposing all kinds of restrictions on marketplace dynamics. When the housing supply is restricted, the one group of people who you can be sure will get hosed are the poor people.

  7. Jim Wamsley Avatar
    Jim Wamsley

    You hit it out of the park.
    “The first question I would ask, though, is whether local zoning restrictions limited density or land uses in some way to make it less profitable for developers to re-make the neighborhood.”

    Zoning changes are made, not to improve settlement patterns and reduce cost of government, but at the request of developers. The condominium to the south west of Huntington Metro Station remains zoned for three story while the developer lot on the north east was rezoned for 10 story high rise. Zonig is following the market, not the pest interest of the community.

  8. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    Two Items:

    First: See our post on Vienna / Fairfax / GMU METRO station on this blog “METRO West — 22 Years Too Late” posted 28 March 2006 or the revised version that is End Note 9 in our 15 April 2006 column “The Problem With “Mass” Transit.”

    Jim B. and Jim W. are right. Land use controls thwart the evolution of settlement patterns in station areas and waste $ Billions of investment in mobility facilities.

    Second (This is the fourth time I have made this point):


    Humans are not turtles or junk yard dogs.

    Humans do not carry their houses on their backs and they are not chained to their jobs.

    The vast majority of traffic congestion is caused by citizens living here and working there and by citizens living here and seeking goods, services, recreation and amenity there.

    Many of the patterns of activity that cause mobility and access dysfucntion can be changed in less than a day.

    If politicians did not continue to tell people “vote for me and I will solve the problem” or (once in office) “more money will fix the problem” a lot of congestion would go away.

    If politicians, MainStream Media and the Autonomobility Crowd did not perpetuate the “Private Vehicle Mobility Myth” (look it up with the search tool at Bacons Rebellion) then citizens could solve the mobility and access crisis.

    Yes, we need new patterns and densities of land use, especially within walking distact of shared-vehicle system platforms.

    Yes, anyone who chooses to consider the facts knows the parameters of functional patterns and densities of land use.

    However, that does not need to happen before there is relief.

    How fast can the patterns of employment and services change?

    In the Communtiy-scale enclave where I lived and worked in 1972 only 17% of the residens lived and worked in the Community on the first of Oct 1973.

    In Jan 1975 39% lived and worked in the Community and many more had changed to jobs that were closere than before the Arab Oil Embargo. With more people living and working in the Community, goods and service options expanded. (It was already a great place for recreation and amenity, that is why residents chose to change jobs.)

    VDOT could not build two miles of four lane road from start-of-design to ribbon-cutting in that time frame.

    Consumers drive the market and citizens vote.

    If they understood the parameters of human settlement patterns and the cumulative impact of their actions, Fundamental Change could happen very quickly.

    The longer those with vested interests in Business-As-Usual perpetuate myths, the worse the mobility and access crisis will grow.


  9. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    follow-up to Groveton comments –

    What will happen FIRST:

    a. – plug-in-hybrids that use Nuke powered-electricity

    b. – settlement patterns

    If “a” happens before “b” – do the same automobility predictions still hold?

  10. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse


    If the nuke powered hybrids are:

    Private vehilces designed to carry 4 of more,

    At speeds of 60 mph or more, and

    Go whereever the driver want to go,

    They will not imporve mobility and access for reasons spelled out on several occasions.

    These vehicle will continue the trend toward Sao Paulo mobility for the rich and not support a democracy with a market economy.

    If they are:

    The size of Ginger / Segway and serve one or two,


    They carry passengers who share a ride or share a vehicle, and

    Have limited options for routing and “stations”

    They will drive (pun intended) and support functional settlement patterns.

    Either configureation will have small total ecological footprints and provide mobility and access for a large segment of the population so long as the population and consumption of resources stops growing as unsustainable rates.

    If nuke powered hybrids meet either of these criteria, they will support a democracy with a market economy.


  11. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I guess I tend to think that what affects people directly in their everday life is not the concept of sustainability but rather simplier things like time and money.

    They won’t stop what they do just because someone says that it is not sustainable.

    They won’t stop even if they KNOW that longer-term it is not sustainable because for them – it’s what they can do or not do that affects their decisions.

    So .. if gasoline goes to $4-5 a gallon but plug-in hybrids come to the auto market as a response – then folks will switch.

    But in the process – commuting, and long distance commuting will continue…. as before…. because folks can still get from point a to point b – no matter whether it violates the concept of sustainability or not.

    this is the part – I cannot see past…..

  12. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse


    I belive you are right. Few citizens in a prosperus society will take actions they think are not in their immediate self-interest just becasue they are not “sustainable” or because they benefit society in the long term.

    That is why a fair allocation of costs and education are so important.

    Human’s genetic hardwiring — what has helped humans survive as they evolved over the past 200,000 years — supports Business-As-Usual.

    The Fundamental Changes that humans have triggered with science, technology and the Industrial Revolution (including the 95% nonurban / 5% urban to 95% urban / 5% nonurban transformation in the last 200 years) is not yet reflected in human genes, governace structure or settlement patterns.

    Can Fundamental Change in governace and settlement patterns happen fast enough to save civilization?

    To be, or not to be, that is the question.


  13. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    On the issue of Fundamental Change:

    One of the biggest problems in misinformation.

    To repeat what Jim W. notes from time to time, quoting Will Rogers who was quoting ….

    “It ain’t what you don’t know that hurts you it is what you know that ain’t so”

    Earlier Groveton stated:

    “Thank goodness that the county governments in Nothern Virginia have approved large, low density subdivisions. They are all planted with native grasses:

    Blue grass
    Bent grass”

    None of those grasses are “native” to the northern part of Virginia. The climax conditon is a hardwood forest, not grass lands of any kind.

    These grasses are all hybridized (geneticly mobified) and bred for different purposes than those cited in the WaPo article.

    They are also not suitable for harvesting and at the present time their propagation is part of the problem, not the solution.

    See the topic “Short Grass Pollution” in “The Shape of the Future.” If you do not have a PDF version, go to and use their “Look Inside the Book” feature.

    It would be possible to regrade and replant marginal lands and disaggregated urban dwelling lawns for production of “native hay” but that process might use more energy than it would produce.


  14. Groveton Avatar

    Dear Mr. Risse:

    It was a joke. I thought that was obvious when I ended by saying that we awaited the thanks of the nation.


  15. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    Sorry Groveton, based on some of the posts in support of Business-As-Usual, it is hard to tell to jokes and humor from the Myths that citizens really believe.


  16. Ray Hyde Avatar


    Your comments of 10:04 are unadulterated nonsense, with the exception of 60 mph+ travel.

  17. Ray Hyde Avatar

    I am familiar with Huntington, and Groveton’s comments are accurate. Huntington is a big a failure as Ballston is a “success”.

    EMR is right. Bacon hit it out of the park.

    “As for the matter of people being displaced… Guess what: That’s the history of real estate. Every time a neighborhood gentrifies, low-income people get displaced. (But those who are fortunate enough to own real estate usually make a nice profit along the way). Neighborhoods are constantly going and down in value, appreciating and depreciating. That’s what you call a market economy.”

    So, why is it that we cannot seem to accept that this fact applies to agricultural land as much as it applies to Huntington, or urban land in general?

    Farmers are being displaced. Get used to it, they are the low income people of their neighborhood.

    Agricultural land is going down in value and residential land is going up. But if their neighborhood is artificially zoned as agricultural, in spite of the facts, even fifty years of facts as in Huntington, then where exactly is the free market?

    Yes people who can’t afford the rents SHOULD live someplace else. But what happens when they can’t afford the road tolls?

    I’d love to put up a couple of modest homes, which is all I can afford to do. Someplace where a teacher or state patrolman can afford to live. It wouldn’t even make a dent in the farm operations.

    Unfortunately, that won’t work, precisely because the government is placing all kinds of restrictions on marketplace dynamics.

    In one respect, Walmsley is right. zoning changes follow the market instead of making it. Eventually, the zoning I suffer under will change. The “developers” who profit in remaking the neighborhood will be the ones who manage to withstand the pain the longest.

    The people who get hurt will be the ones who get forced out early, before government zoning regulations respond to what the market actually is, as opposed to what we would like it to be.

  18. Ray Hyde Avatar


    Maybe. But the fact reamains that it isn’t happening. As I recall something like 5% of the populations changes jobs and relocates every year.

    Statistically, half of them will move to a “better” settlement pattern and half will move to a “worse” one. At the end of twenty years where are we?

    Even if we manage to create rules wich coerce or entice people to move to “better” patterns, maybe 15% will cooperate, which is about what MCOG counts on. That means it will take 133 years to get to a “better” settlement pattern.

    And we don’t know how much “better” that will be.

    The best information we have suggests that if we double the density we will decrease travel by 15%. NO CITY HAS EVER ACHEIVED THESE RESULTS.

    While EMR’s statement is not false, it is the “can” part that causes problems. It is improbable beyond calculation.

    Even if you believe the roadway part, (given recent history, that isn’t too hard) how can we expect to change settlement patterns faster than we can change building uses?

    Yeah, OK, the climax condition is hardwood forest. So what? Who says the climax condition is the best condition? Even the native indians had sense enough to burn off the forest to increase the deer production.

    Again, EMR is correct in saying that replanting marginal lands for the production of native hay might use more energy than it would produce.

    So what? I freely tell my customers that I am in the business of convertng diesel fuel into horse fuel. My customers accept this and readily pay the increased prices that result from petroleum increases.

    So, here is a guy who says that regrading and replanting open space is a waste, but building concrete platforms in the sky is “profitable” and energy efficient.

    Providing that his customers and my customers agree, we are both right.

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