To consolidate, disseminate, and gather information concerning the 710 expansion into our San Rafael neighborhood and into our surrounding neighborhoods. If you have an item that you would like posted on this blog, please e-mail the item to Peggy Drouet at pdrouet@earthlink.net

Friday, February 7, 2014

Desperate for Clean Air, Delhi Residents Experiment with Solutions


By Max Bearak, February 7, 2014



 Smog and fog enveloping Rajpath, a ceremonial boulevard, in New Delhi on Wednesday.

 Smog and fog enveloping Rajpath, a ceremonial boulevard, in New Delhi on Wednesday.

NEW DELHI — For some worried expatriates and Indians, the battle to keep pollution out of their homes and their lungs started well before renewed media coverage in the past weeks unofficially crowned New Delhi as the world’s most polluted city.

One story by Gardiner Harris of The New York Times noted that for the first three weeks of this year, New Delhi’s average daily peak reading of fine particulate matter from one monitor was 473, more than twice as high as the average of 227 in Beijing.

The story also noted that many Indians seemed to be less concerned about the pollution compared to residents in Beijing. But instead of simply waiting for the winds to change, a pioneering few in Delhi have been willing to spend large sums or to risk embarrassment in their efforts to breathe clean air, employing air filters, indoor plants and imported masks.

Air pollution’s associated health risks have necessitated lifestyle changes the Chases, an American family of four who arrived in Delhi from Ethiopia about a year and a half ago.

“As a parent, you are constantly weighing outdoor exercise against health concerns because of the air,” said Genevieve Chase, a public health professional. “We used to be an outdoors kind of family. Now we have to save that for our vacations.”

The Chases have installed top-of-the-line air purifiers in two rooms in their home, each costing around $1,400 and only available from a supplier in Mumbai called Samskara Wellness, which, incidentally, said via email that their sales have risen slightly in the past week because of the increased news coverage of air pollution, although almost exclusively among expat customers.

Delhi’s exceptionally bad air means filters in the machines must be replaced at more than double the rate they would in, say, Geneva, where the machines are made, and upkeep costs could easily exceed $1,000 per year, said Ms. Chase. Nevertheless, she said that if her family chooses to stay in Delhi, they would buy more.

Outside, the Chases have tried to protect themselves by wearing masks to cover their mouths – a practice widespread in East Asia — but the masks are hard to find in stores and wearing them draws unwanted attention.

Annabelle Chase, 11, said her mother had gotten her to wear a mask specially brought from the United States, but once she reached school, her friends exclaimed, “Oh my gosh, what happened?” Then they said she looked “like an alien” or “like she had a disease.”

Ten minutes later, Annabelle swore never to don the mask again, or at least until the unlikely event that all her friends were wearing them, too.

Barun Aggarwal, the director of BreatheEasy, a company that installs centralized air systems in homes and businesses, said he, too, wears a mask when he goes outside, despite the stares.

“People look at me and you can see they’re thinking ‘What’s wrong with him?’ rather than asking what’s wrong with the air,” said Mr. Aggarwal.

As might be expected, Mr. Aggarwal recommended using an air filter at home, but he also said that placing plants that convert carbon dioxide to oxygen in rooms yields significant gains when coupled with air purifiers. He said small areca palms perform that conversion during the day and a plant called mother-in-law’s-tongue does so at night. Both are available at most nurseries.

But stopgap solutions seem to provide as many headaches as clean breaths. The masks are largely unavailable and decidedly uncool. Mr. Aggarwal wants to arrange masks for Delhi’s police officers, for their own safety and so they might become role models, and Ms. Chase wants to do the same with the athletes at her children’s school. Neither initiative has made much headway.

With air purifiers, the best require frequent filter replacements, are prohibitively expensive for most people, and besides, when those filters are thrown away, the particles trapped in them escape right back into the air, even if outside one’s home.

One of the most viable options for protecting Delhi residents’ lung health would be installing central ventilation and filtration systems – technology that already exists — in new homes and businesses, said Maija Virta, an independent indoor air quality consultant based in Bangalore.

“These systems improve air quality up to 80 percent. The very least we should do is not make new buildings without them,” she said. “Architects should be educated on how to incorporate these things.”

But there is little, if any, push to incorporate such technology in current projects, which is in line with the general lack of concern about the pollution.

Preetha Rajaram, an environmental epidemiologist and mother of two daughters, moved back to India from the United States three years ago and has since invested in air purifiers at home. But she was amazed at how few of her Indian colleagues seem bothered by the air.

“Sure, there are plenty of things competing to bother you here,” she said. “Perhaps if you’ve only been here though, then you don’t necessarily know that this isn’t the way that things should be.”

Ms. Rajaram says she and her husband are increasingly convinced that Delhi’s air is responsible for exacerbating one daughter’s asthma, and giving the other tonsillitis and inflamed adenoids, which has meant she can only breathe out of her mouth.

Mr. Aggarwal does his part to raise the alarm among Delhi residents over pollution’s hazards, often giving presentations at schools and conferences, but he lamented the apathy he encountered.

“People are definitely appalled, but instead of doing anything about it I often hear this kind of ‘Oh, God, should I just shoot myself instead?’ type of attitude,” he said. “Unless they or their kids are facing severe respiratory problems, I don’t see Indians doing anything about this.”

Not far from the terrace of the Delhi Golf Club, where Mr. Aggarwal sat for an interview, floodlights illuminated the shroud of carcinogenic particles hovering above the bunkers and greens.

Over at the next table, a man coughed and muttered one of Delhi’s common refrains into his cellphone: “This smog is killing me.”

Panama Canal expansion bogs down in disputes, cost overruns


By Tracy Wilkinson, February 6, 2014

 Panama Canal dispute

 A view of the expansion project on the Panama Canal in the Pacific area, taken Feb. 5.

MEXICO CITY -- A long-planned $5.25-billion expansion of the Panama Canal, one of the world’s most important shipping lanes, is under threat by cost overruns and acrimonious disputes among builders and managers.

Negotiations to resolve some of the issues -- namely who should pay more than $1.6 billion in unexpected costs -- broke down Wednesday, according to the Panama Canal Authority, which administers the 50-mile route that links the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

Jorge Quijano, Canal Authority administrator, accused the Spanish-led consortium in charge of widening the canal of ordering all work to stop.

The principal firm in the consortium, Spain’s Sacyr SA, denied that  it had halted construction. But most experts agreed that work had already slowed considerably, potentially delaying the finish date yet again.

The project, which includes a new traffic lane and a third set of locks and will double the waterway’s capacity, originally was to have been completed this year. That deadline has already been pushed to 2015.

Canal officials complained that the construction consortium failed to follow legal procedures to determine who should pay the cost overruns, generated in part by harder-than-expected dredging and other geological challenges. One of the legal venues is an international arbitrage panel that could be convened in the United States.

“I want to make clear that we will not submit to blackmail,” Quijano said in a Panama City news conference.

Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli condemned the construction consortium’s purported decision to halt work.

“It is irresponsible,” he said. “We will close ranks.”

But Sacyr, the Spanish firm, on Thursday denied that it had stopped construction, although it added that such a decision remained a possibility.

“There is still room for negotiation with the canal authority,” Sacyr President Manuel Manrique told Spanish radio.

Some experts say the fundamental problem is that the consortium, which also includes Impregilo of Italy, submitted an unrealistically low bid that the Panamanian government all too eagerly snapped up when the project was awarded in 2009.

The Martinelli government previously has been accused of pushing Panama’s growth rate, the highest in the region, through similar shortcuts that will eventually prove unsustainable.

Still, the disputes over the expansion are not expected to scuttle the project but rather to delay it further.

“The project will be completed, but perhaps not with this consortium,” Felipe Chapman, an economist with Indesa, a Panama City-based financial analysis firm, said in a telephone interview. “It would be better to finish with this consortium, because it would take less time. Otherwise, there will be more delays.”

Officials at the two largest ports in the United States -- Los Angeles and Long Beach -- have been eyeing the Panama expansion project warily for some time, in part out of concern that it could eventually make it easier for eastern U.S. ports to take away Asian-based trade.

For now, California ports are holding their own because they are already equipped to handle the larger cargo ships that the expanded Panama Canal will transport, L.A. officials say.

The Panama Canal handles up to 6% of world commerce. Expansion is crucial for attracting and accommodating the supertankers and ever larger cargo ships plying the world’s trade routes.

There were indications that public opinion in Panama was siding with the Canal Authority, in a small country where the waterway accounts for thousands of jobs and is a source of national pride.

“The time has come for us to be respected,” the daily newspaper La Prensa said in an editorial after it was reported that the negotiations with the consortium had broken down. It urged the canal authority to rescind its contract with the construction firms.

Everybody Walks in LA! Figueroa Street Plan Hits a Roadblock


By Jack Skelly, February 7, 2014

IS THIS WHO WE ARE? Recently Mayor Eric Garcetti's office hosted a City Hall talk by a transportation rock star. Gabe Klein, former transit czar for Chicago and Washington DC, spoke to LA's rail boosters and bike-eratti about how he created hugely successful bike-share programs in both cities. Perhaps his biggest message is that there is one universal mode of transportation in all cities: walking! 

Think about it: a certain percentage of people drive, another percentage takes public transit, and a certain percentage bikes. But 100 percent of travelers walk at some point in their commute. As Klein says, the ultimate end-user is the pedestrian. (LA Streetsblog has the video of his talk here 

"We should be planning for the pedestrian first, then the transit user, the auto user and the bike user," he said. And the sooner we upgrade our streets to serve them -- serve us -- the more safely and efficiently we will all get around. 

Los Angeles is pushing several essential plans to do this. The most important is the My Figueroa Project in Downtown LA. It will transform the Figueroa Corridor from a "freeway street" into a "complete" street -- from Staples Center to USC. 

My Figueroa improves signals and signage, installs boarding platforms for bus riders, and adds trees, art and "street furniture" to make the pedestrian experience smooth and enjoyable. Most dramatically, My Figueroa creates a three-mile bikeway: a big and bold link between Downtown and South Los Angeles. 

These are not ordinary bike lanes. They include cycle tracks separated from traffic. The first in the city. They decrease collisions and improve safety for walkers, bikers, drivers. 

"It's an ambitious, holistic solution, and a unique one for LA," says Melani Smith, My Figueroa design-team leader and partner at MelĂ©ndrez. "But it's not unique in the United States, and this is absolutely the right time and place to begin transforming LA's streets." 

My Figueroa plays off the exciting rebound of Downtown. USC has 15,000 bikes on campus with many students commuting from Downtown. LA LIVE is a people magnet that continues to grow with or without Farmers Field. Expo Rail has funneled a new wave of pedestrians here. The planned Downtown Streetcar will add another link. And several huge, new developments will require as much alternative transportation as possible. 

"So we need a high-quality bike/pedestrian/auto/transit connection that encourages the broadest range of users," says Smith. 

Sounds like a no-brainer, right? 

But My Figueroa has hit a road block. A business group including auto dealers at the south end of the Corridor is concerned that eliminating some traffic lanes will stifle access. The group is joined by Ninth District City Councilman Curren D. Price Jr. 

A recent City Council committee delayed the project by requiring a new report. As LA Streetsblog Editor Damien Newton wrote, opponents threw up questions "already answered many times." Councilman Price moved to require a new traffic study, including taking cycle tracks off Figueroa to other streets. 

One should be sympathetic to business concerns, but My Figueroa will actually be good for them. A similar project in Long Beach resulted in the highest retail sales in 10 years. And a New York Department of Transportation study called Measuring the Streets shows how "complete-streets" projects boost business, rents and sales tax by making streets safer and more efficient, and creating welcome public spaces. 

LA is at a crossroads symbolized by My Figueroa: Will our streets continue to be ruled by cars -- with the danger, delays and dismal livability that come with that -- or will they serve the 100 percent of us who walk? 

One direction is the past. The other is the future.

Taxi Drivers Miffed Over Uber and Lyft Just Sued the City of Chicago


By Emily Badger, February 6, 2014

 Taxi Drivers Miffed Over Uber and Lyft Just Sued the City of Chicago

A group of taxi drivers and owners in Chicago who've been steaming over the arrival of unregulated "ride-share" companies like Uber and Lyft finally filed a lawsuit on Thursday against the city in federal court for doing little to rein them in. The 65-page complaint (not counting the many, many appendixes) is novel on several fronts. This is the first time cab drivers have tried suing a city in their escalating war with the new wave of companies providing taxi-like services without the literal taxis.

And their legal logic is provocative (whether you agree with the drivers or not). In short, the taxi companies, alongside the Illinois Transportation Trade Association, are arguing that the city is damaging and discriminating against them by refusing to enforce the same stringent regulations it has long imposed on the taxi industry on these newer "de facto taxi services," which function "in all material respects as taxi companies." (If you've been troubled by the ambiguity of the term "ride-sharing," the lawsuit repeatedly uses this label instead: Unlawful Transportation Providers.)

More specifically, the cabbies argue that they and their investors have purchased taxi medallions from the city – required to operate a cab in most cities – currently worth at least $2.38 billion in property value. And the city is willfully allowing that property to devalue, now that anyone can enter the cabbie business in Chicago without getting their hands on a medallion.

The taxi drivers have also smartly – if a bit disingenuously – cast the suit not as a battle to protect incumbent businesses from innovation, but as a bid to protect taxi riders from price-gouging, criminal drivers, unsafe vehicles, and service that discriminates against anyone who doesn't have a smart phone, or who lives in a neighborhood where an UberX driver simply doesn't want to go.

Earlier this week, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed a city ordinance that would create new regulations for these companies, requiring among other things driver training, background checks, and vehicle inspection. But the taxi industry has complained that the rules wouldn't go far enough (and that it makes no sense to create separate rules for companies that use apps, when taxi drivers use them, too). The lawsuit Thursday also argues that Emanuel's proposal wouldn't do enough to protect riders:
the proposed ordinance would place the City’s imprimatur on a separate and unequal class of public transportation available only to privileged individuals with smartphones and credit cards, resulting in a disparate impact on minority, disabled and elderly populations in violation of the Illinois Civil Rights Act and fundamental fairness...
That's quite a charge. And it was echoed at a Chicago press conference Thursday morning by the lawyer, Michael Shakman, who's representing the taxi interests. “This lawsuit," he said, "is about whether low-income areas and people with disabilities are going to be left without taxi services."
The city, he added, with language that sounds right out of the Occupy Movement, has allowed the creation of a "taxi caste system."

At the end of the day, though, this is one of the differences that has separated traditional taxi service from "rideshare" companies: The latter group has never claimed to offer universal service. Sidecar, Lyft and Uber are all based on membership systems. Perhaps that distinction will blur as other boundaries between the two business models do, too.

Why 2,000 Passengers Just Rioted at an Airport in China


By Lily Kuo, February 7, 2014

 Why 2,000 Passengers Just Rioted at an Airport in China

On Feb. 6, more than 2,000 delayed passengers stormed check-in counters at an airport in Henan province, smashing computers and equipment, in response to the airport’s five-hour long shutdown because of snow.

Photos posted online show police trying to calm angry crowds. Chinese state media described the incident as a “riot.” One passenger’s comment circulated online (registration required) said, “This is how crazy travelers who have gone through multiple delays can get.”

via Sina Weibo

via Sina Weibo

via Sina Weibo

The Henan incident is only the latest civil disturbance over airline service in China, and specifically poor customer service. Henan Radio said that airport patrons were fed up not only with the delays, but the staff’s attitude. ”There were not enough seats and passengers had to sit on their luggage eating instant noodles. The airport staff were indifferent and said ‘I don’t know’ to questions asked of them,” the radio station said on its microblog. The airport reportedly resumed service later on Feb. 6, allowing the passengers, many of whom were returning from their Chinese New Year travels, to finally board their flights.

China has been building a modern domestic airline industry to service what is expected to be the world’s largest aviation market. The total number of airports in China is expected to reach 244 in 2020, compared to 80 in 2011, with the help of state funding. In August, China’s aviation authority announced it would grant rebates of up to 433 million yuan ($70.7 million) for airlines that operate regional services.

As the aviation industry has expanded so have the crowds—but not the air space that planes are allowed to fly in, in part because China’s military still commands most of the skies. Delays, naturally, have ensued. In 2012, Chinese airlines took off and landed on time on average only 74.8% of the time with Beijing Capital believed to have the worst delays of the country’s main airports.

Officials have instructed airline staff to take better care of delayed passengers and offer food, accommodation, and most importantly explanations for the delays.Travelers complaining (registration required) on online message boards say airport staff distractedly perform security checks and continually check their phones instead of attending to customers. In January, Shanghai’s Pudong airport took three days to unload (link in Chinese) the luggage for 10 arriving flights. Some airlines say that inexperienced passengers who don’t understand the logistical issues involved are the real problem.
The net result is more angry flight-goers. In 2008, over 30 passengers protested the delay of their flight at an airport in the city of Kunming by sitting on a runway (link in Chinese), blocking the path of other planes. Last July, passengers in Dalian refused to leave an airplane that had landed two hours behind schedule until they were compensated for the delay. Eventually police had to remove them. Last summer, there were over two dozen fights at airports.