Saturday, June 27, 2020

Pandemic Link Dump

Passing along a handful of random articles and topics I've come across over the last month or so...

Urban freeways are a product of racial injustice, and its effects are still being felt here in Houston.  I've touched on this before, and in the wake of the protests for racial justice sparked by the murder of George Floyd, it's become a topic once again. Urban freeways were largely built through minority neighborhoods, dividing and displacing their inhabitants. Decades later, those scars remain:
Thousands of peaceful protesters in the Twin Cities occupied Interstate 94 over the weekend as they marched from the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul to Minneapolis. 
For the region’s African-American community, which has been leading the ongoing protests over the fatal arrest of George Floyd and the use of police force on black Americans, the concrete they were standing on bears significant meaning. 
It was this highway that, in the 1950s and ‘60s, tore apart the once-thriving neighborhood of Rondo — the heart of St. Paul’s largest African-American community — and helped spur decades of racial segregation in the region. 
Minnesota Governor Tim Walz acknowledged as much during a Saturday press conference. "It wasn’t just physical — it ripped a culture, it ripped who we were. It was an indiscriminate act that said this community doesn’t matter, it’s invisible,” he said. “This convenient place to put a highway so we can cross over this place and go from the city out to the suburbs.”
The once and future effects of these freeways remain a topic of controversy today, even here in Houston as TxDOT continues forward in it plan to reconstruct IH-45 north:
Members of the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s transportation advisory committee this week voted to keep portions of the I-45 project in the area’s short-term transportation plan, but with a host of caveats. Chief among those conditions is that the Texas Department of Transportation respond in detail to a set of requests from Houston planners outlining exactly what they can and cannot do to stay within the freeway’s existing boundary and agree in writing to protect displaced residents and businesses. 
The lack of clear commitments worries skeptics, who fear neighborhoods affected by the massive redesign from downtown north to Beltway 8, such as Northside, Independence Heights and Fifth Ward, will continue to bear the brunt of TxDOT and Houston’s highway expansion. For decades, neighborhoods along I-45, I-69 and I-10 north and east of downtown have felt the effects of living within shouting distance of the freeways, as mostly white officials routed the thoroughfares through black and Hispanic communities. 
“A vote on this project that continues those very systems of oppression, disparity and racial inequities without addressing the real problems is only supporting and continuing that system of racism,” said Oni Blair, a member of the transportation advisory committee and executive director of LINK Houston, an advocacy group that has organized opposition to the I-45 plan.
The IH-45 north rebuild provides an opportunity to improve the freeway while at the same time address the impacts that the freeway has historically had on adjacent communities. TxDOT needs to listen carefully, and not repeat the mistakes of the past:
“To leave I-45 as it is currently configured would be a mistake,” said Carol Lewis, director of Texas Southern University’s Center of Transportation Training and Research. 
Ignoring the issue of social justice would be, too, she said. TxDOT has gone to historic lengths to solicit comment but must now reconcile those concerns with its plans and the engineering analysis of how the new freeway and changes to it will affect how people and freight move. 
What is clear, Lewis said, is that TxDOT cannot brush aside how the freeways got where they are now. 
“I think historically TxDOT has been 100 percent guilty of being 100 percent insensitive,” Lewis said, noting what is now I-69 along the east side of downtown gutted Fifth Ward.
How do we get people back on the bus? I wrote a couple of months ago about the essential role of public transportation during the Coronavirus crisis. Now, as local economies reopen, transit agencies need to convince "non-essential" commuters that it is safe to start using transit again:
Masks are mandatory on subways and buses in Washington. San Francisco is betting longer trains will help riders social distance. Crews disinfect New York’s trains daily -- stations twice a day -- and are testing ultraviolet light devices to see if they kill Covid-19 on surfaces. 
As states gradually reopen, transit agencies are taking steps to coax back passengers who’ve been told for months to avoid just such tight quarters with strangers -- an effort that will ultimately influence the economic recovery. 
“For certain businesses teleworking isn’t really an option, so we still need to figure out ways to get those people to work,” said Ed Mortimer, vice president of transportation and infrastructure at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. 
Especially in urban areas, where many people don’t own cars, mass transit will be crucial to reviving economies. But enticing passengers back on board may require adding trains and buses so people can space themselves further apart -- adding stress to agencies already reeling from declining ridership and rising cleaning costs.
Public transportation might not be the disease vector it's feared to be, but it's understandable that people are going to be wary of crowding on board buses and trains with other strangers. Transit agencies are poised for a slow and difficult recovery, especially since people are likely to commute differently in a post-COVID world, and they probably need to re-think the way they provide service and define success both during and after the pandemic. That being said, our cities will not experience full economic recovery unless their transit networks also recover.

Could Houston become a climate policy leader? Maybe:
April was supposed to be a big month for Houston city planning. America’s largest unzoned city was poised to host the American Planning Association’s national convention for the first time, bringing thousands of attendees to town. Walking tours were arranged; awkward cocktail mixers were scheduled. 
Of course, with a global outbreak of the coronavirus, it wasn’t meant to be.
I cannot begin to express how much I was looking forward to the APA's National Planning Conference being here in Houston, as I had never attended this event before. Likewise, I cannot begin to express how bummed I was when it was canceled in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic. I hope the APA makes plans to return to Houston with this is all over.
Undeterred, Houston quietly adopted the Bayou City’s first citywide climate action plan on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. If city leaders can pull it off, America’s sprawling oil capital could end up teaching a lot to more traditionally green urban strongholds.
The city's climate action plan is intended to be a blueprint to Houston reducing its impact on the environment. Given the city's characteristics - the refineries, the sprawl - that's going to be a challenge, so the plan includes both standard and innovative elements.
The plan includes plenty of mainstay climate-policy prescriptions, including calls to electrify the city’s fleet of vehicles, switch to renewable sources of energy, and improve energy efficiency in buildings. But then things become rather unique. The city’s first bicycle master plan, adopted in 2017, gets a lot of play, as does the MetroNEXT Moving Forward plan, a widely lauded $3.5 billion push to overhaul mass transit in the notoriously auto-oriented city. The emphasis on mobility makes sense, since nearly one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, and Houston maintains one of the highest rates of automobile use in the country. 
Toward this same end, one of the plan’s more innovative proposals calls on policymakers to eliminate minimum parking requirements by 2030. While Houston famously lacks zoning — meaning that it doesn’t segregate uses or restrict densities — it still enforces some conventional land-use regulations. These include minimum parking requirements, which mandate that developers build off-street parking for each project, regardless of actual demand. In Houston, this can mean up to two parking spaces for every apartment or four spaces for every thousand square feet of office space.
Houston's lack of zoning, furthermore, might make it easier for the city to redevelop in a sustainable manner, featuring more walkable, mixed-use, higher-density development, than other cities that are incumbered by an onerous development process that is subject to NIMBY interference.
The city has a long way to go before it becomes anyone’s idea of an environmental exemplar. But if all goes according to plan, Houston could soon rank among those cities that have scrapped out-of-date parking requirements — a group that conspicuously doesn’t include progressive stalwarts like Portland and New York City. In a city otherwise famous for its supposed lack of planning, easing up on the right rules might just turn Houston green.
Stay tuned.

"The right thing - just at the wrong time." Take a few minutes to read this excellent XFL postmortem by ESPN's Kevin Seifert. The article takes a look at why the well-funded league suddenly folded (it might not have been completely due to Coronavirus), it's prospects for revival, and the potential for spring football generally:
"We still don't know that spring football works in this country," said Andrew Kline, founder of the investment bank Park Lane, which specializes in sports investments. "Football season is so intense, and it's just associated with the fall season. You wonder if part of the cycle is that people need to come down from it for a while."
I'm obviously a fan of spring football, but its track record is dismal, and as even as the XFL winds its way through bankruptcy proceedings, I'm skeptical that we'll ever see another Houston Roughnecks game again. At any rate, it appears that we could have to go for awhile without any football at all. Which will make my fall miserable, to say the least.

The removal of Confederate statues and monuments should not be a "liberal" endeavor. I can't believe I'm actually linking to Rich Lowry in the National Review, but in this case he's right:
Conservatives […] reflexively oppose politically correct campaigns to destroy anything giving offense. 
They fear where the slippery slope of woke iconoclasm will lead — first it’s Jefferson Davis, ultimately George Washington. 
They value tradition and worry we are trashing part of our history.This impulse, though, is a mistake. Confederate statues and symbols deserve to be reevaluated, and often mothballed. 
The statues are an unnecessary affront to black citizens, who shouldn’t have to see defenders of chattel slavery put on a pedestal, literally. 
It is impossible to evaluate these monuments without considering the context of why they were created. Many of them were erected as part of the push to enshrine a dishonest, prettied-up version of the Confederacy.
Lowry ends by noting that "secession was a traitorous act that threatened to destroy the American nation, to create a rump republic built on slavery, and to make impossible the subsequent rise of the United States to a world power." Liberals and conservatives alike should understand the fact that the Confederate States of America was, quite simply, a racist and treasonous enterprise that was defeated over a century and a half ago.

I occasionally come across the argument that the removal of Confederate statues and monuments is somehow "erasing history." This is bullshit. There are no monuments to Hitler or Rommel or Göring in Germany, but we still know that county's history - a history the German people of today most certainly do not want commemorate.

These statues and monuments belong in museums, battlefields, and military cemeteries. They do not belong in our parks, our squares or our capitol grounds.

Last but not least, congratulations to Liverpool.

Coronavirus cases surge in Houston

Houstonians were hoping to emerge from lockdown to find the Coronavirus pandemic behind us. Unfortunately, that's not what's happening:
An explosion of the novel coronavirus in Houston has put the nation's third-largest* city at the epicenter of the nation's public health crisis as hospitals fill and officials warn of impending catastrophe.
Harris County officials reported a shocking 1,994 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday alone, a new record. The county has reported more than 1,000 new cases on three of the last four days. Models show the number of cases rising over the next four weeks. 
“We're approaching a precipice of disaster,” County Judge Lina Hidalgo (D) told reporters at a briefing this week. “We're looking at very, very concerning numbers in our hospital population that are getting worse by the day.”
Harris County has confirmed more than 23,000 coronavirus cases since the outbreak began. About 330 people have died. Neighboring Fort Bend County has reported another 3,100 cases.
It's not just the Houston area; all of Texas is experiencing a surge in coronavirus cases (that we should have seen coming). Yesterday Governor Greg Abbott ordered bars statewide to close and announced other restrictions, while here in Harris County Judge Lena Hidalgo issued a countywide stay-at-home advisory. While local physicians have applauded these attempts to slow the trend of virus transmission, it may be too little too late.

Quite simply, people here (as in the rest of the country) have become fatigued by the lockdowns, social distancing orders, and other restrictions designed to slow the spread of the virus. Now, with summer upon us, Americans might be giving up on the fight against the pandemic altogether:
For several weeks at the beginning of the outbreak in the U.S., the need to control the virus took precedence over other concerns. Now, for many people, the pandemic is no longer the most pressing national issue. As protesters and some public-health officials have said they are weighing the harms of police violence against the risk of increased viral spread and choosing to gather in the streets, state governments have made similar risk-reward arguments about balancing public-health and economic concerns. The virus does not care about these trade-offs. Retail reopenings and racial-justice protests may exist on different moral planes, but to the virus they both present new environments for spreading. 
Maybe the U.S. will somehow avoid another New York–style outbreak. Maybe the number of new infections will not grow exponentially. Maybe treatments have sufficiently improved that we will see huge outbreaks, but fewer people will die than we’ve come to expect. If so, it won’t be because the United States made concerted, coordinated decisions about how to balance the horrors of the pandemic and the frustration of pausing everyday life. Instead, the United States has moved from attempting to beat the virus to managing the harm of losing.
It's for this reason that another round of shutdowns is unlikely. It's frustrating to realize that we've essentially squandered three months of a social and economic shutdown aimed at combatting the virus, but that's the reality of where we are right now. At this point I fear that we're going to have to continue to limp through this pandemic until either a vaccine becomes available or herd immunity is achieved (at the cost of tens of thousands of more lives).

So stay at home as much as you can, wash your hands, and wear your damn mask when you're out.

Kuff has more, including how we got here.

(*This is an error on The Hill's part. Houston hasn't passed Chicago yet and is still #4.)

Status update

I think I've been able to weather the pandemic as well as anyone, and for that I am thankful. I'm still working from home most of the time, although over the past month my employer has begun allowing some of us to go into the office once or twice a week, on a rotating basis so as to limit the number of people in the office at any one time. I've enjoyed being able to do this, because it keeps me from going stir-crazy at home and it also allows me to get a few things done that are difficult for me to do from home (my employer's VPN connection works well for most of the programs I use, but not all of them, and my home computer, having reached the end of its useful life, is very slow).

As of right now, Corinne and I are going ahead with our rescheduled (not officially a) wedding ceremony next month in New Orleans. We've been in contact with our venue about sanitation practices and, quite frankly, we're going to have so few people attending that social distancing is not going to be a problem. We realize there's still a risk involved, but we're also already locked in to contracts with small businesses that need our support now more than ever. Deferring the ceremony until the pandemic passes in 2021 or even 2022 simply isn't an option, so we're going to be as safe as we can, make the best of it, and give ourselves and our guests something to enjoy during this otherwise difficult period.

Since our previously-planned honeymoon in Maui has been nixed, we will honeymoon in the Great Smoky Mountains instead. We will also drive the Blue Ridge Parkway from the Great Smoky Mountains to Shenandoah National Park (reprising a vacation I took almost a decade ago). That should hopefully give us plenty of opportunities for outdoorsy, socially-distanced activities such as hiking and sightseeing. Corinne and I are looking forward to it.

As of right now I am still holding out hope that there will be a college football season this fall, but I won't be surprised if it gets canceled as well. Which will really suck.

Everybody stay safe!