Sunday, July 31, 2011

Thanks for nothing, Don!

Last May, as the Houston area suffered the effects of a springtime drought, I remarked that I "would prefer that Houston's next opportunity for significant rainfall not come courtesy of a hurricane or something."

Well, as the region prepares to enter my least-favorite month, it still is in sore need of some wet weather. We've had a few storms here and there, but it hasn't been nearly enough and I'm now beginning to think that a tropical system is indeed going to be our best bet for some significant, drought-busting precipitation.

Which is why I wasn't the only Houstonian who spent the last few days hoping that Tropical Storm Don would head this way and dump a few much-needed inches on the city. I can handle the winds and the relentless local media hype of a tropical storm, as long as it brings rain but doesn't become another Allison. Hell, at this point I would even welcome a category 1 hurricane.

Alas, Don veered away from the upper Texas coast this weekend and made landfall in the vicinity of South Padre Island, bringing the Houston area nothing more than a few rainbands' worth of scattered showers. And with a high pressure system firmly in place over the region and highs expected in the 100s for the coming week, there is truly no relief in sight.

Knowing our luck, the region's extended drought is going to be broken sometime in August or September with a massive hurricane, which will trigger another evacuation gridlock nightmare, unleash a storm surge which will wipe out all those nice beach houses that have just been rebuilt after Ike, submerge the city under 20 inches of rain, bring ashore 100-mph winds that will knock over trees and tear roofs off houses, and leave me and my neighborhood without electricity for two weeks.

Monday, July 18, 2011


This past weekend, a ten-mile section of the I-405 freeway which links western Los Angeles to the San Fernando Valley through the Sepulveda Pass was completely closed for construction. Although there was much worry that the closure of this vital stretch of highway would lead to a "carmageddon" of traffic gridlock in the Los Angeles area, the freeway was reopened ahead of schedule and the feared calamity of paralyzed traffic never came to pass.

A couple of thoughts:

1. What does it say about the cultural gravity of Los Angeles that the closure of 405 was the weekend's biggest national news story? I know LA is the nation's second-largest metropolitan area as well as the country's entertainment center. But it nevertheless seemed a bit strange that a closure of a section of freeway in this city appeared to be the top story of several major media websites, ahead of arguably more important items such as the ongoing debt ceiling negotiations in Washington or a tabloid scandal in Britain that threatens to bring down an entire media empire. Last year The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf wrote about "The Tyranny of New York," whereby the city dominates America's media such that everything that happens there becomes national news. Perhaps we can speak of "the tyranny of Los Angeles" as well?

2. Motorists are not water molecules. We describe traffic as analogous to fluid: the movement of vehicles is referred to as "traffic flow." Areas of recurring congestion due to merges and lane closures are referred to as "bottlenecks." As such, there's always a fear that the closure of a major section of roadway will cause massive traffic backups, much as the closure of a valve on a pipe causes water to back up.

However, at the wheel of every vehicle is a human being who makes choices as to where to drive or to drive at all. If motorists are made aware of a major closure - the 405's shutdown was well-publicized - they will choose alternate routes to get to their destination or decide not to make the trip at all. That obviously happened in Los Angeles this past weekend, as there was reported to be 65% fewer automobiles on the LA freeway network than on a normal weekend (the fact that the closure occurred over the weekend also probably helped, although as anybody who's been to Los Angeles knows, heavy traffic is just as frequent on Saturdays and Sundays as it is during the work week).

This is why traffic nightmares did not occur in Manhattan after the West Side Highway was shut down in 1973 or in San Francisco after the Embarcadero Freeway was demolished following the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989: people were aware of the closures and simply altered their travel habits accordingly. (This, incidentally, is also one of the reasons why widening a freeway does not, in the long term, relieve traffic congestion: people become aware of the added capacity of the widened freeway and begin using it for their trips, and the new capacity is eventually completely absorbed by all those new motorists.)

Another closure of the 405 is scheduled for next year. It will likely be just as much of a non-event as this weekend's closure was, and hopefully the rest of the nation won't be subjected to constantly hearing about it.

Japan claims Women's World Cup

Have I mentioned the the thing I hate the most about soccer is that so many games - especially championship games - are decided by penalty kicks? (Oh yeah: I have. I don't even like them when my team wins.)

Such was the ending of yesterday's thrilling Women's World Cup championship. After playing to a 2-2 tie after 90 minutes of regulation time and 30 minutes of extra time, Japan defeated the United States 3-1 in penalty kicks to clinch their first-ever World Cup title.

It really is a disappointing way to decide a game. But the truth is that it never should have come to PKs. The US took the lead twice - once in regulation and once in extra time - and twice they allowed Japan to equalize. The Americans simply missed too many scoring opportunities on offense - shots on goal that hit the posts or otherwise went wide - and suffered from some sloppy play on defense (Japan's first goal, for example, was created by the fact that the Americans couldn't manage to clear the ball out of the penalty box).

As disappointed as I am in the way the game ended - the fact that the United States lost as well as the fact that it was decided on goofy penalty kicks - I can't help but be impressed by the tenacity and determination of the Japanese team. They were underdogs throughout the tournament and pulled off three compelling upsets in the knockout stage - against host Germany and Sweden as well as the United States - to claim the championship. They also provided some joy and pride for a country that just a few months ago was devastated by an earthquake and tsunami that resulted in 23,000 deaths and a nuclear emergency. That's something that everybody, Americans included, can feel good about.

But I still hate penalty kicks.