Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Nine Best-Run Countries in the World, What They Have in Common, and What They Have to Teach the U.S.

How to be among the best?

For much of the twentieth century the United States could, quite factually, consider itself the most prosperous nation on earth. This, however, is no longer the case. While the US is not doing terribly, nine countries scattered over three continents are outperforming us along a wide variety of spectra. The nations in this “best-run” club all have higher levels of wealth, health and quality of life than the U.S. Though it’s hard to say definitively why they are healthy, wealthy and living so well, their public policy choices and infrastructure investments diverge significantly from ours. As we dig into their stats, we’ll see they share many traits in common.

Compared to the US, these nine countries are more egalitarian and less murderous. Per capita, they imprison far fewer people, and far fewer of their citizens die in road accidents. Their governments are less corrupt. Their cities are the greenest in the world and offer their residents advanced infrastructure, low crime rates, and high levels of security and stability. Each country as a whole saves more and has less debt per capita than the US. The populations of these countries own fewer cars than their US counterparts, and the ones they have they drive less. They take trains and transit, walk and bike at greater levels, and they spend less of their income on transportation as a household expense. These countries spend far less on their militaries and on health care than we do, but they spend far more at the pump for a gallon of gasoline. And all but one country achieve their high quality of life with less CO2 emissions per person than the US—many with less than half as much.

One might wonder if these countries are just as urban as ours? The answer is yes. Perhaps they are more homogenous and don’t have the challenges of assimilating immigrant populations? The answer is four have a higher percentage of immigrants than the US, one has comparable, and four have a lower percentage. Over half of these countries have vast, sparsely populated portions of countryside like we do. Four have rich mineral resources like the US does; five have almost none. Four are net energy exporters; five are net energy importers like the US. All but two have their own currency like the US does. All are democracies.

Who are these paragons of good national management? Norway, Switzerland, Australia, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Netherlands, Austria and Canada. Let’s look closer at some of the surprising statistics that help us understand why and how these countries are doing so well. 

These nine countries are in the very top tier of GDP per capita in the world. All have greater GDP per person than the US. More importantly, all have higher GDP per capita after subtracting off their government deficit.   

And all nine have high gross savings as a percent of GDP. As nations they consume smaller portions of what they earn. All except Austria and Finland ran trade surpluses in 2011. (In 2011, the US ran the greatest trade deficit in the world.) 

These countries are more egalitarian in wealth distribution. Their GINI coefficients (which measure how far from the center income is distributed) are all substantially lower than that of the U.S. This means there are fewer really poor people, fewer really rich people, and a lot more in the middle. (The US GINI is so high that our peers in inequality are Cameroon, Uruguay and Jamaica.)

These nine best-run countries also have more social mobility than the US as measured by how much one’s parents’ income predicts one’s own. The result is all nine countries are easier places to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. And these nine countries aren’t over-regulated or hostile to business. Seven of the countries rank among the top 15 nations in the world for ease of doing business. 

These nine countries have less government debt as a percent of GDP and they run substantially less annual deficits as a percent of GDP. Or, in the cases of Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, they run no deficits at all. In terms of national credit ratings tabulated by the World Economic Forum they rank 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 10, 12 and 13. (The US is number 11.) The same forum ranks these countries much higher than the US for protection of property, intellectual property protection, judicial independence, less favoritism in decisions of government officials, and less wasteful government spending.  

These nine countries also have more efficient legal frameworks for settling disputes, their government policy-making is more transparent, and, according  to the Corruption Index, they are among the least corrupt governments in the world. The US, though certainly not the worst on the corruption measure, doesn’t even rank as first tier.

In the Worldwide Governance Project rankings, these nine countries stood out as the most well-governed with the highest marks in the world (all higher than the US) for control of corruption, rule of law, regulatory quality, government effectiveness, political stability, absence of violence/terrorism, and voice and accountability (a measure of political participation, freedom of association, freedom of expression and a free media.)

These nine countries all have a higher percentage of women elected to their main parliament or Congress, 25% - 45% versus the US rate of 18%. (More women = better governance?  Just saying . . .) They also all have smaller parliamentary bodies (perhaps smaller = better functioning?) and each parliamentary member represents many fewer citizens (perhaps giving each individual citizen more influence and say in the political process?)

In the World Economic Council’s assessment of infrastructure, seven of the nine countries ranked higher than the US.  The rankings were: Switzerland (1), Finland (3), Austria (8), Netherlands (10), Denmark (13), Canada (15), Sweden (19), Australia (36) and Norway (39).  The US came in number 25. All nine countries ranked higher than the US in quality of electrical supply. 

The nine best-run countries all offer more weeks of paid maternity leave. (The US offers none.) In eight of these countries workers routinely get 1-4 weeks more vacation, all mandated by government policy. (The US has no legal vacation minimums.) 

These nine countries all allocate substantially more of their annual GDP in aid to foreign countries.

As a percentage of their GDPs, these countries spend 1/5th to 2/5ths of what the US does. (The US spends more on its military than all other countries of the world combined.) None of these countries possess nuclear weapons. The nine countries ranked high (2, 4, 6, 9, 10, 14, 18, 22 and 28) out of 158 countries on the Global Peace Index. (The US ranked 88.) The index includes measures of internal and external stability, security and conflict.

This is an area where the well-run nine run circles around the US.  They spend oodles less on health care, both per capita and as a percent of GDP. And, to top it off, their results are better! First off, they have longer life expectancies. More importantly, they also have longer expected years of healthy life.  (Which is the point of health care, right?)
They all have lower infant mortality rates. In addition, they have lower rates of obesity and diabetes, lower rates of heart disease. Most have lower rates of asthma and lung diseases of all kinds (7 countries out of 9) and alzheimers/dementia (8 out of 9). Their citizens are less likely to die from drug use, kidney disease, leukemia or birth trauma. The US cancer death rate is about average--four countries die from cancer at a lower rate than the US, five die at a higher rate. All nine countries have more practicing doctors per 1000 population than the US.  

And then there’s lifestyle impacts on health costs. Smoking and drinking don’t seem to be responsible for inflating our health care costs. Six of these countries drink more alcohol per person than we do, seven of these countries smoke more than we do. But the citizens of these countries do consume far less high fructose corn syrup per person. The US consumes 55lbs of the stuff per person per year!

In these countries people eat less meat, especially (except for Australia) beef. Their many fewer road accidents help keep health care costs down as well. (AAA estimates the costs of road accidents in the US to be $300 billion annually, or $955 per person.)  

Other factors contributing to high US health care costs are that the US has the highest rate of CT scans, MRI exams, prescription drug use, prescription drug prices, and prescription drug spending. (Over 50% of Americans take at least one prescription drug each day. 25% of US adults take four or more different prescription drugs each day!) Not all of these nine countries have single payer health care but in none of these countries is healthcare tied in any way to employment.

These nine countries imprison fewer people and have much lower murder rates. However, to be fair, the US is third in the world on the “Do you feel safe walking at night?” statistic. (Just behind Sweden and Canada, just ahead of Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands.) None of the nine have capital punishment.

According to the World Economic Forum, organized crime imposes much less toll on businesses in these countries. The US ranks 87 out of 144 countries on this measure, while our nine best-run countries rank 4, 12, 14, 19, 21, 22, 28, 30, and 44. On reliability of police services, they rank 1, 2, 6, 7, 8, 12, 13, 17, 18 while the US ranks 30th. On ethical behavior of firms they rank 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, and 18 while the US ranks 29th. On auditing and reporting standards they rank 2, 6, 7, 8, 11, 12, 18, 23 and 33 while the US ranks 37th.

All but Canada have stricter blood alcohol levels legal for driving (US and Canada--.8, Finland, Austria, Switzerland, Netherlands, Australia--.5; Sweden and Norway--.2) All but Canada use less oil per person—five (Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Finland and Austria) consume approximately half the oil per person as the US. Gas pump price per gallon in these countries averages $7.59, more than twice the US price ($3.75.) (Note: highest gas price is in Norway, a net oil exporter.)

People in eight of these countries make nearly four times as many trips without the use of a car as people in the US. With the exception of Canada, they walk twice as much and bike ten times as much as in the US, especially for short trips. In the US, Americans drive 85% of trips 2/3 of a mile in length (a twelve minute walk) and even 55% of trips 1/3 of a mile in length (a six minute walk.) In seven of these countries the majority of children walk or bike to school. (In the US 85% of all children are driven to school in car or bus.)

People in these nine countries have many fewer cars per capita. They travel many more miles by train.
All nine nations have auto fatality rates that are a third to two-thirds of ours. Their pedestrian fatality rates per capita are, on average, half of ours, even though they do double the walking.

These nine countries have cities with the highest quality of living in the world as calculated by the Mercer Index (2012)—they fill 5 of the top ten spots, and 16 of the top 35 spots:  Vienna, Austria (1), Zurich, Switzerland (2), Vancouver, Canada (5), Geneva, Switzerland (8), Copenhagen, Denmark (9), Bern, Switzerland (10), Sydney, Australia (11), Amsterdam, Netherlands (12), Ottawa, Canada (14), Toronto, Canada (15), Melbourne, Australia (17), Stockholm, Sweden (19), Perth, Australia. (21) Montreal, Canada (23), Helsinki, Finland (32), Oslo, Norway (32). The only US cities that rank in the top 35 are Honolulu (28) and San Francisco (29), and Boston (35).  

These countries have the greenest cities in the world.  The Siemens Green City Index rates cities based on their environmental performance and impact. Copenhagen had the highest rating in the world with (87.31) The other top city ratings were Stockholm (86.65), Oslo(83.98), Vienna (83.34), Amsterdam (83.03), Zurich (82.31,) Vancouver (81.30), Helsinki (79.29).  US cities with the highest ratings were San Francisco (83.80), New York  (79.20), Seattle (79.10) (Australian cities were not evaluated.)

Energy is a complex topic. Consumption and production patterns are influenced by each country’s mineral and hydroelectric resources as well as by their investment in various forms of energy-producing infrastructure. In the coming decades energy use will have an enormous impact on every country’s prosperity. Four of the nine countries (Norway, Denmark, Canada and Australia) are net energy exporters. Five are net energy importers like the US. Two of them (Austria and Finland) import close to two-thirds of the energy they consume.

All the countries but Norway and Canada use less total energy per person than the US (some half as much) and all use less energy for transportation. Except for Australia, they all emit less CO2 per person (some half as much). 

Sweden, Denmark and Canada in particular have made greater investments in installed solar and wind capacity per capita than the US, and the Netherlands and Austria are catching up.
In general the more coal consumed, the greater the CO2 emissions. Oil consumption also has a large impact on CO2 emissions; natural gas has less. Not surprisingly the nations that are extremely energy efficient with extensive transit and train systems tend to have the lowest CO2 emissions. (Note: TOE stands for Tons of Oil Equivalent, a way to compare different sources of energy.)

So what in the end is a point of a government, the point of a country, if not the happiness and life satisfaction of its citizens? In the World Happiness Report produced by the Earth Institute of Columbia University, happiness and life satisfaction levels are assessed through a number of different evaluation measures. Living standards and income undoubtedly contribute to happiness but so do a person’s health (physical and mental), education, values held (such as the level of materialism or altruism), job security, meaningful work, social connections and social engagement. Or, on a more macro level, good governance, freedom (ability of citizens to choose the course of their own lives,) levels of trust in society, and levels of social mobility. (Spiritual connection/spiritual meaning and/or connection with the natural world also come into play.)  On happiness/life satisfaction scales we see Denmark (1), Finland (2), Norway (3), Netherlands (4), Canada (5), Switzerland (6), Sweden (7), Australia (9), and Austria (13) out of 150 countries, with the US coming in at (11).

What Does All This Tell Us?
Now correlation is not causation. And there are so many factors at work here it’s hard to pin down what might be cause and what might be effect. But it's pretty clear that low corruption is a prerequisite for good governance. It’s pretty clear that low CO2 emissions require reduced burning of fossil fuels. It’s pretty clear that electricity via sources other than coal and transportation via methods other than private auto result in less burning of fossil fuels. It’s pretty clear if a nation puts a disproportionate portion of its wealth towards its military and poorly-run health care system, it will have little money to put towards infrastructure such as transit, trains or renewable energy.

If we could achieve the energy efficiency of Denmark, the transportation efficiency of Sweden, the walking and biking rates of the Netherlands, the lack of government corruption of Finland, the oil consumption and transit use rates of Austria, the rail travel rates of Switzerland, the low healthcare costs and high healthy life expectancy of Australia, the low coal use of Norway, and Canada’s level of military expenditure, the US would be in extremely good shape. We could stop burning coal, end fracking, end foreign oil imports and be entirely energy self-sufficient. Our health care and energy costs would drop dramatically, as would our trade deficit. With reduced expenditure on the military, it’s even possible our national deficit would disappear. Our population would be happier, healthier, live longer, and enjoy a higher quality of life. 

To go further, if the US wants to be among the most prosperous nations on earth, we need to encourage active forms of transportation for short trips, develop transit and rail systems for longer trips, reduce income inequality and corruption, become highly energy-efficient, reduce military expenditures to 1.5% of GDP, and reduce health care expenditures to 11% of GDP. This appears to me to be the lesson of our nine best-run countries.

Sources of data:  OECD library, UN Data, BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2012, IEA Statistics 2012, EIA, CIA World Factbook, IRTAD Road Safety Annual Report 2011, Mercer Quality of Living Rankings 2012, World Happiness Report, Journal of Physical Activity and Health, Bicycling and Walking in the United States 2012 Benchmarking Report, EU Transport in Figures Statistical Pocketbook 2012, EU EDGAR data, World Economic Forum, International Transport Forum, Human Development Report 2007/2008, Global Competivenss Report 2012/2013, Renewables 2012 Global Status Report, Global Peace Index, Trends in Global CO2 emissions 2012 Report, Corruption Perception Index, The Economist, Siemens Green City Index.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

My Car-free Excursion to Ikea

My Ikea Haul

As a kind of hobby, I’ve been going to places further from home and more logistically challenging without a car lately, places to which I formerly would've driven. On Monday of this week I tackled the Emeryville Ikea store.

After evaluating my route judiciously, I decided to walk to the Mission 24th St BART station, take BART to the Oakland MacArthur Station, and then take the Emery-Go-Round bus to the Ikea/Bay Street bus stop. I thought long and hard about taking my bike on BART but I didn’t do so due to my lack of familiarity with the route and my uncertainty about the bicycle infrastructure on the Oakland side of things. In retrospect, I think I made the right choice.

I live a bit over a mile from BART, a 20 – 25 minute walk going there and a 30 minute walk (all up hill) going home. I wish I lived closer. In the coming decade, people who live a ten-minute walk or less from BART are going to be very, very happy about this because BART has the greatest reach of any public transit system in the Bay Area. Because Muni from my house to BART requires two buses and a transfer, that option can take any where from 13 minutes (a miracle of bus coordination) to 40 minutes. Plus it costs $2 each way. I am far too cheap to pay $2 to avoid a mile walk.

When going to the airport, I have come to appreciate the walk to BART as a feature, not a bug, of the experience because on days of plane travel it is likely the only exercise I will get.  And on my trip to Ikea, walking there was fine. Walking home with two full bags of stuff was a little more tiring.

As good as it ever looks
Now to the BART experience. First off, whoever designed the 24th St and 16th Street BART entrance plazas must deeply hate human beings. That’s the only explanation I can muster for the sheer hostility of those places both visually and as a site of human congregation. Once you descend into the BART Station, it’s not so bad. I eyed the bikes parked inside the station because I had thought a lot about leaving my bike there but had been concerned about the security. I noticed the bikes were, in general, not fancy bikes, and were by and large extremely well locked up, usually with more than one kind of lock. This did not allay my fears.

Pleasant enough inside the station
I had to wait 10 minutes for a train to MacArthur Station. The announced train schedule that flashes up on the board, while usually reliable, wasn’t this time because a train from Fremont curiously decided to go no further than 24th Street, offloaded its passengers, and then took on passengers back to Fremont. This held up my my train which was waiting down the tunnel (you could see its headlight.)

The train was reasonably full and got more so once we hit the first East Bay stop.  Still, BART is roomy, and this makes it a particularly pleasant form of transportation. In Oakland I noticed a number of women get on with large wire handcarts, good for shopping.  (They could probably carry 5 or 6 bags of groceries in terms of volume, though not, perhaps, in terms of weight.)  I began to regret not bringing my own smaller wire handcart, but as it turns out it would’ve been a horror story to bring it, fully loaded, on the Emery-Go-Round.

Pleasant or ride from hell?
I was a little anxious where to find the Emery-Go-Round when I got off at MacArthur, and indeed, there was no sign indicating where along the long platform it would stop, but luckily there was already one there, engine idling, going in the direction I wanted to go. Hooray! I quickly got on board and then proceeded to wait seven minutes (engine running the whole time) before the driver also boarded and closed the doors. The bus seats were 80% full, but it was roomy enough. The Emery-Go-Round is free! Being cheap, I appreciated this value as my round trip BART trip was costing me $7.20. It took about 8 minutes to go the 2.2 miles to Ikea. People got on and off at each stop but many got off at the Ikea/Bay Street stop. However, overhearing conversations, many of my fellow passengers appeared not to be shoppers but people who worked at the stores there.

I kept an eye on bicycle infrastructure as we went and did see some bike lanes and some sharrows. The bus only went over a portion of the route that Google Maps recommended if biking, so I don’t know what the infrastructure was like the entire way. I do know the last segment was a narrow bike lane along fast moving traffic. I also don’t know how rough and tumble the neighborhood is by the MacArthur BART station. I saw a number of houses that looked abandoned with all the downstairs windows boarded up. I felt quite safe, however, on the bus.

For me, coming from out of town and not being familiar with the area, to use bicycle infrastructure successfully the infrastructure needs to be extremely idiot-proof. For example, there should be signs straight out of the BART station that say “This way to Ikea/Bay Street by bike.” There should be a cycle track completely separated from cars the entire way so that I don’t fear being run off the road on an unknown street by unknown ferocious traffic.  Perhaps the cycle track even needs to be painted a different color the whole way so I will have certainty at all times I am going the right way.  And there should be pretty pictures of all this on some website, so when I am making up my mind on whether going by BART plus bicycle is right for me, I can make my choice with happy confidence. This is what I recommend for at least these particular 2.2 miles to connect Ikea/Bay Street to BART by bicycle for out-of-town shoppers.

It was easy to know where to get off for the Ikea stop because I could see the store from the window. But once off the stop, I walked into the Bay Street pedestrian mall thinking that would be a pleasant way to walk to Ikea. Wrong. The only way to get from the Bay Street area to Ikea is either to walk through a dark parking garage or go back and walk along the busy main road. After spending five minutes figuring this out, I walked back to the main road and made my way to Ikea. To Ikea’s credit, once you get to their property there is a nice walking path separated from the cars.

Ikea’s layout is sprawling. It was at least a four minute walk from the bus stop to the store entrance. All told, it took me an hour and twenty minutes to get from my house to the Ikea entrance. I spent 25 minutes in the store. A feature, not a bug, of not bringing a car to Ikea, is that you can only buy what you are willing to physically carry. This reduces impulse buying, a very good thing. (I still bought more than I intended and then cursed myself going home.) I brought two shopping bags with me with shoulder straps, each with the capacity to hold the equivalent of a stuffed paper grocery bag. They were both full when I left the checkout, one with somewhat fragile glass and metal tealight lanterns that I needed to get home in one piece.

Going home, I had the four minute walk to the bus stop. I arrived a little after 3pm. There were almost 20 people waiting at the stop! Very few shoppers, however, or at least few people who had bags of goods with them. I was very glad I had not chosen a rainy day for the trip as there was no shelter at the stop, no protection from sun, wind or rain. I was, however, able to sit. I waited close to ten minutes. When the bus finally came, it was quite large, perhaps 2/3 the size of a regular Muni bus. However, it only had one door. This was a big, big problem because the bus was very full, every seat occupied and all the floor space full of people standing. So every time the bus stopped, people wanting to get off had to claw their way to the front exit, climb down the steps, and then the people who wanted to get on could board. This was a slow, laborious process. In addition, with the bus so full, I had to sit with my packages precariously perched on my lap, and every time the bus lurched and threw the standing passengers around I prayed that no one would fall on me and crush my lanterns. This may seem like a silly anxiety, but if you are going to encourage people to take a bus shopping, the bus simply cannot be packed to the gills because it leaves no room for people’s purchases. If I (or several people) had with me a wire handcart full of things it would've made the congestion on that bus impassable.  If part of the point of the Emery-Go-Round is to convey shoppers from BART to the Bay Street/Ikea stores, then they are shooting themselves in the foot to let the buses get so crowded.

The bus ride back was slow (15 agonizing minutes) and the lurching made me motion sick. This 2.2 mile stretch between BART and Ikea is flat, flat, flat. I could've covered it with ease in 12 minutes on a bike (with no wait time) and felt great the whole time. More than anything, I longed for a bikeshare bike with a big generous front basket (for my well-stuffed bags) and decent bicycle infrastructure on which to ride it.

I was lucky at BART to find a train ready to head to San Francisco. Clipper Card makes going through BART stations a breeze. I don’t understand why anyone would fool with buying BART cards this day and age. The train back to San Francisco was nearly empty, plenty of room for my packages. I was grateful, a bit tired, and enjoyed being able to relax and not feel crushed or motion sick.

Off at 24th street station and then the walk home. The load I was carrying slowed me considerably heading up hill, and it took me half an hour. I really, really would've loved my bike for this final stage of the trip.

All told, the entire adventure took me three hours and ten minutes and $7.20. Almost one hour of this was walking between my house and Bart. If I’d driven to Ikea, I don’t think I could’ve done the trip in under two hours. If I’d driven, I probably would’ve made sure I returned before carpool hours and so the Bay Bridge toll would only have been $4.00. In addition, I would’ve spent $2.50 on gas and another $1.17 on tires and maintenance (based on AAA estimates of these costs per mile.) So that comes to $7.67 total trip cost versus the $7.20 I spent. And I would’ve gotten very little exercise in the process and quite a bit of stress dealing with bridge traffic.

But what would have been even better? What method of getting to Ikea would have been quick and enjoyable and could very well exist with just a little tweaking of our present infrastructure? First, I would add a secure bike parking facility above ground at the Mission/24th street station.  Carrying one’s bike up a flight of stairs along with two bags of shopping is just not doable. Even managing an elevator with a bike and two bags can be tricky. Plus, BART elevators often don’t work, and when they do, they are known for being icky, smelly and so slow they add ten minutes to your trip.
If I could’ve biked to and from the 24th St station, I would’ve saved 30 minutes of walking time. I would’ve been glad to pay $2 ($1 per hour) for no bike stair-climbing and complete bike peace-of-mind. In addition, a regional Bay Area bike share system with stations at MacArthur station and Bay Street/Ikea along with idiot-proof cycle ways (well marked, completely separated from cars) would have reduced my transit time on the other end from 45 minutes to 25 minutes. 

Just these two improvements would’ve reduced my total trip time by 50 minutes, down to 2 hours and 20 minutes, comparable to driving, parking and walking into the store. It would cost perhaps $2 more for the bike parking, (and perhaps $100/year for a bikeshare membership fee) but it would actually be a far more pleasant travel experience than either driving or riding crowded buses. And it would also be cheaper for society. Bikeshare systems generally operate without government subsidies, while the free Emery-Go-Round bus is completely subsidized by commercial and industrial property owners of Emeryville at $1.52 per passenger trip (2009 data.) (So I got $3.04 worth of free bus ride, even though it made me feel a bit sick. Thank you, Emeryville.) Cars are generally subsidized by society at $.39/mile (externalities such as pollution costs, accidents, road repair and maintenance not covered by gas tax monies, etc., but not including current and future costs of climate change) which means if I’d driven, my cost to taxpayers would've been $9.36. (One can argue that the Bay Bridge toll offsets some of this, but not much since bridge maintenance is far more costly than basic road maintenance.)

If we want to encourage people to reduce their driving and shop without cars, we need to make their experience pleasant and comparatively inexpensive. Bicycle infrastructure--such as easy, secure bike parking at BART stations, bikeshare bikes at BART stations, and entirely idiot-proof, extremely pleasant bikeways between BART stations and shopping districts--is an eminently cost-effective way to increase BART's utility to more people.