$100 Barrel Oil Nears; Streetcars in Portland


Two items caught my eye today. World oil prices reached $93 a barrel this week, which is why gasoline at the Wesco down the road is $3.07-a- gallon tonight. The other news is the announcement on Monday that city leaders in Oregon want to dramatically expand the number of neighborhoods served by Portland’s spectacularly successful streetcar.

The two developments are related, of course, because as fuel prices rise the sanity and fuel-efficiency of streetcar lines makes ever more sense. 

Dallas opened a 2.8-mile streetcar line in 1989, and since then eight cities have built new streetcar lines, including Memphis, Little Rock, San Francisco and Tampa, all serving growing numbers of riders using restored cars or replicas.

Portland, which opened the first section of what is now an eight-mile loop in 2001, was the first to use modern streetcars, designed and built in the Czech Republic.

A new 2.6-mile streetcar line is scheduled to open in Seattle in December; a new line is to open in Washington in 2009; and a four-mile line is to begin operating in Tucson in December 2010. Miami, Columbus, Cincinnati, Phoenix, Missoula, Grand Rapids and some 70 other American cities are studying the feasibility of opening lines, according to Reconnecting America, a national nonprofit transit research group in Oakland, Calif.

Not since the turn of the 20th century, when metropolitan regions built elegant urban-rail networks, which were later dismantled, have streetcars generated such intense interest, according to the American Public Transportation Association, a Washington trade group.

Much of the reason lies in what happened after Portland decided that a streetcar, operating on fixed tracks and sharing the right of way with cars, was not only a new option for getting from one end of town to the other, but also a boon to developers as a new rail corridor for building homes and offices downtown. The Portland region also has a 44-mile network of light-rail lines, using faster and larger cars, that runs through the center of the city to the eastern and western suburbs. An 8.3-mile, $575.7 million extension is under way, scheduled to open in 2009.

John Carroll, a local home builder who is on a committee that oversees the streetcars, told me earlier this month, “All I can say is that the stars lined up the right way for Portland. The Portland streetcar demonstrated that the city was serious about developing downtown at a time when the core was much quieter than it is now. Our last seven or eight projects have been within a block, block and half of the streetcar line.”

The city-owned streetcar line, which cost $100 million to build, has helped sweep in $2.4 billion in new commercial and housing development, with 7,248 new housing units, according to city statistics. A former vacant railway yard and grimy light-industrial sector on the line’s northern end was transformed into a hip area called the Pearl District. On the other end, industrial ground along the Williamette River has become the South Waterfront, a neighborhood of high-rise condominiums, town houses, offices, parks and a tram with spectacular views.

Although riding the Portland streetcars now seems like a logical step to urban prosperity, getting the line built took 11 years of promoting the idea.

A major task included convincing residents that pedestrians, bicyclists, drivers and streetcars could co-exist in the same right of way. Miami, which plans to open a line in 2012, put the problem to rest by producing videos of Portland streetcars as they operate without a hitch, and posting them on a Web site, miamigov.com/MiamiStreetcar/pages/Videos.asp.

Another challenge was raising money. Portland financed its line almost entirely with local taxes.

Two years ago, Earl Blumenauer, Democrat of Portland, convinced his colleagues in the House of Representatives to approve a new funding provision called Small Starts in the federal transportation bill to help pay for the line. This year the program is providing $100 million for building streetcar lines and bus rapid transit systems. Portland wants to use $75 million in Small Starts money to partly finance a 6.7-mile, $146 million extension of its streetcar line.

Portland’s streetcars carry nearly 10,000 passengers a day, almost four times the number it anticipated when the line opened, said Rick Gustafson, executive director of Portland Streetcar, the nonprofit corporation that operates the line. “There’s no question that we are part of the combined investment over the last 20 years that produced the infrastructure that made it possible for people to park their cars and turn Portland into a walking environment,” Mr. Gustafson said. “When you create that, amazingly enough the market responds.”

According to the Portland Oregonian, about 140 miles of the city’s busiest streets show potential for new streetcar routes. Streetcars could make more neighborhoods resemble the popular retail corridor along Southeast Belmont, built originally along a streetcar line in the early 20th century.

I Wish, I Will


NEW YORK — The three-day Clinton Global Initiative concluded with a flurry of new commitments including a five-year, $4 billion pledge by Pacific Gas & Electric and Ausra to build solar thermal generating stations that both companies says is cost-competitive with fossil fuel generation. California-based Ausra will build at least 1,000 megawatts of solar power plants and PG&E will purchase at least 1,000 megawatts of solar thermal, and the deal will eliminate over 36 million tons of CO2 emissions in California and neighboring states over the next 20 years. Other projects announced here were these:

  • FourWinds Capital Management said it will invest $300 million to develop investment programs that focus on planting, harvesting, and processing of novel sources of bio-fuels using emerging technologies in tropical regions that offer significant environmental and social benefits in addition to alternative energy sources. The investment company also said it would develop a $1 billion global investment program to assist large cities and rural areas in improving their environmental infrastructure, with a particular focus on waste and water management systems.
  • Geothermal Power Company of Iceland committed to spending $150 million to help countries in the African Rift Valley develop geothermal energy resources. The project will invest in comprehensive research into the geothermal potential of Djibouti, and if successful, will build a large power plant driven on geothermal power.
  • Sea Studios Foundation, a Monterey-based documentary film production company, will produce a $16 million integrated media initiative to help audiences understand the connections between seemingly unrelated problems-and solutions-in global health, poverty, climate change, and the environment. Using television, the Internet, and new media, the studio’s “Strange Days on Planet Earth 2020”  series will include periodic primetime television events featuring Edward Norton; an interactive Web site hosted by PBS.org, an iTunes video Podcast series, ongoing “Search for Solutions” contests to foster user-generated content and showcase high-impact opportunities to make a difference, and live screening events involving the public, business leaders, opinion leaders, and policymakers.
  • The Apollo Alliance, the City of Newark, and the Center for American Progress committed to organize Newark’s Green Future Summit in the Spring of 2008. The idea is to identify best practices and mobilize the resources to help Newark catch up with Chicago, Portland, Seattle, New York and other cities that are showcases for prosperity that emerges from developing a clean energy-efficient, green economic development strategy.

These and more than 200 other commitments announced this week were said by President Bill Clinton to touch “at least 100 million people worldwide.” The scope and numbers are stunning, even if half of what was announced here this week is actually executed. Mr. Clinton asserted that nearly 10 million children not in school around the world will enroll for the first time. Some 50 million people will gain access to treatment for neglected tropical diseases. Some 170 million acres of forest will be conserved and restored, an area equal in size to Italy and Switzerland combined. And 11 million adults, most of them women, will gain access to industries and durable jobs.

I wasn’t the only observer who found the proceedings disorienting. There really isn’t anything quite like this conference anywhere on the planet. The Aspen Ideas Festival convenes a similar array of prominent thinkers and voices. The World Economic Forum is much larger and, I’m told, more perceptive and far-reaching in its choice of subjects and how far it asks panelists to advance their thinking. The United Nations, which also convened in New York last week, attracts more global leaders. But none of these, nor any other international conference, does as well in attracting such diverse leaders, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu (see pix). And none is motivated so clearly by one person seeking to make the world a better place and successfully making the ask so that not $millions, not $billions, but that something close to $10 billion is committed by individuals, companies, governments, and foundations to execute an incredible array of worthy projects. More was done to help solve the global warming crisis in these three days than the United Nations or the United States has done in half a decade.

Several more big ideas of the 21st century are at work here. The first is that important industrial companies, particularly those in pharmaceuticals, energy, utlitities, and online media see the value of reducing human and global stress to improving their bottom lines. There’s money to be made in solving misery, not only in the development and delivery of new products, but also in fostering collaborations that help companies gain access to new global markets. The second big idea, one that is becoming Mr. Clinton’s signature in this phase of his life, is the value of what he calls “giving back.”  He frames this in the context of the difference between I wish and I will. There were a lot of willing people in New York last week. 

Online, Televised, Blogged, YouTube and More New Media at the Clinton Initiative

NEW YORK — Live television images from the various plenary and working sessions are everywhere at the Clinton Global Initiative. They appear on screens as big as king size bed sheets in the main conference hall. They illuminate flat screens that stand in the halls and smaller meeting rooms. A row of small screens decorate a refreshment area close to the lobby of the Sheraton New York.

This demonstration of televised ubiquity is just the leading edge of a communications strategy that also includes a well-designed and easily navigable Web site, live web casting of every panel discussion that also is archived and retrievable. There are five interior Wi-fi channels for conference participants and a small army of writers and videographers, most of whom represent online publications and networks, few of which — like treehugger.com — that you’ve ever heard of. 

It’s noticeable that the mainstream media is barely here. The Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times did nice wrapups Friday morning. Forbes and Fortune are covering the conference on their Web sites. The New York Times, though, published just three Associated Press and Reuters pieces. The major papers are still useful as arbiters of importance, but as sources of information about the nuances and transitions and ideas explored here this week they played no role whatsoever. The reason: In the age of the Internet and muti-media, it’s not only essential for organizations to tell their own stories, but they now have the tools and skills to do it better than traditional news organizations, and they can reach huge audiences with their own media.

The Clinton Global Initiative, staged by Scott Givens, understands those lessons well. The initiative generates the sort of idea excitement that translates well on television. Invite interesting and knowledgeable people to talk about vital ideas. Carefully set lights and cameras at the right angles. Array the conference with various kinds of titans — movie stars (Jolie and Pitt), media stars (Martha Stewart), political and diplomatic stars (Tony Blair, Al Gore), business luminaries (Larry Page) and grassroots heros (Jane Goodall). Then turn the conference into an eight-hour-a -day talk show broadcast live on the Web.

The beauty of the Web is that all of that content can be archived and readily downloaded for those who didn’t watch in real time. Then producers supplement the video with digital photographs, blogs, and various other print formats — including a running compendium of commitments. The result is that the online visitor can see for themselves on YouTube, MSN, the CGI Website and elsewhere what happened and generate their own narrative. If they need help, they can search the dozens of blogs written here and brought to the fore by Google and Technorati. The combination of self-generated media, mainstream media, new media, all of it instantly available, provides the hundreds of thousands of online visitors who are paying attention this week a kind of instantaneous digital access to this very hopeful global event. Bill Clinton said this afternoon that MSN put the initiative events on its home and that YouTube’s archive of the initiative had generated 500,000 page views. cgipixtv.jpg

Also this afternoon, as if to emphasize the presence of new media here, Larry Page, the Google co-founder, shared the stage with Mr. Clinton and YouTube co-founder Steve Chen to talk about a new section YouTube is building to help non-profits raise money.  The company’s news release described the new project this way: “YouTube’s 2007/2008 Clinton Global Initiative commitment enables nonprofit organizations (in the U.S. those with 501c3 tax filing status) that register for the program to receive a free nonprofit specific YouTube channel where they can upload footage of their work, public service announcements, calls to action and more. The channel will also allow them to collect donations with no processing costs using the newly launched Google Checkout for Non-Profits. YouTube’s global platform enables nonprofits to deliver their message, showcase their impact and needs, and encourage supporters to take action.”

It’s important and representative of the current media age that this event, which is defined by news of opportunity and promise, is taken so seriously by the new media. The news conferences are dominated by bloggers and independent news organizations from around the world.

The transparent and unavoidable conclusion is that the 20th century American journalistic principles and values — if it bleeds it leads — don’t fit here. The BBC broadcast a half-hour talk show from here that featured Mr. Clinton and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg discussing the green economic development strategy that has revived the city’s economy. No American national news broadcaster devoted even a few minutes to the initiative’s ideas or personalities. 

The sort of transactions that occur at this conference — funders putting projects together with government and non-profits to do such things as educate women in Africa — are understood as vital to the world’s progress by the new media. They’re not, however, seen as news by enough conventional American news organizations. As a writer who contributes to both I worry. The old media’s frame needs to adjust to new conditions. The new media’s capacity to develop the revenue streams that enable its writers and producers to really dig in needs to improve. The unmistakable conclusion I draw is that with the complexity and confusion that abounds in helping the world understand itself, people just need solid facts and real stories. The world, in short, needs great media in whatever form it’s produced. 

Climate Change Is A New Global Organizing Principle


NEW YORK — The X Prize Foundation, which developed a new philanthropic idea called “revolution through competition,” told participants today at the Clinton Global Initiative that it would commit $300 milion in the next  seven years to help solve global crises in each of the four CGI focus areas. The foundation said it is developing new prizes to increase access to renewable fuels, improve energy efficiency, and promote use of cleaner fuels. It also will have new competitive prizes to improve cancer detection and treatment, improving schools and curriculum, and stimulate market-based strategies to produce jobs in poor nations.

The announcement was among the stream of innovative ideas, fully funded, designed to respond to global problems that defy government’s abiity to solve. Other commitments described by Mr. Clinton today include the Sabin Global Health Institute’s $25 million commitment to treat neglected diseases, the Dell Foundation’s $25 million commitment to improve education in poor countries, and Intel’s $300 million five-year commitment to expand and improve its online curriculum to train teachers in developing countries.

The clear priority and focus this year is action to impede climate change, illustrated by multi-billion commitments made by big players. Yesterday Florida Power and Light announced a $2.4 billion energy efficiency and clean energy initiative that includes constructing a solar-powered electric plant. Today Standard Chartered Bank committed to spend the next five years underwriting $4 billion to $5 billion in debt for renewable energy projects with a total project value of $8 billion to $10 billion. The bank said it will target clean energy projects in Asia, Africa and the Middle East and focus its  efforts in areas such as wind, hydro, geothermal, solar, biomass and coal bed methane.

Duke Energy and a coalition of other utilities — Consolidated Edison, Edison International, Great Plains Energy, Pepco Holdings, PNM Resources, Sierra Pacific Resources and Xcel Energy — pledged to increase their collective investment in energy efficiency to serve 22 million customers in 20 states. The collaboration was valued at $3 billion over three years. Mr. Clinton said it will  lead to the elimination of 30 million tons of green house gas emissions per year-the equivalent of taking 6 million cars off the road. With the Edison Electric Institute, the companies also will establish the Institute for Electric Efficiency, enabling them to share and promote best practices in energy efficiency.

I’ve attended a lot of conferences over the years, and elements of this one mimic those. Panels of leading figures in industry, academia, business, and the non-profit communities regularly convene in panel discussions that occasionally divulge some interesting tidbit that you’ve never heard of seen before. Jane Goodall’s chimpanzee greeting yesterday was priceless. 

But I’ve never been to a conference devoted so thoroughly to making things happen, and so much money committed to supporting change that will make a difference. The competition for ideas and attention here is fierce, and the players, particularly the industrial executives, are unexpected. Many of these same suits — Wal-Mart chief executive Lee Scott, for instance, devoted all of the previous years of their careers leveraging the status quo to make billions and contribute mightily to the global environmental crises they seek to solve today. Many of these same people voted for George Bush, no friend to energy efficiency he, and some of them did so twice.   

Redemption, though, is a powerful motivator. And we’ve been told this week, most pointedly by Ted Turner, that there’s money to be made in solving any one of the global problems discussed here — energy and climate change, education, poverty, and health.  

I’ve also never been at an event, national or international, so closely tied to the personality of an individual. The spirit of collaboration and intelligence and adventure that distinguishes the Clinton Global Initiative reflects its founder. Mr. Clinton was on time this morning for a news conference in the press room here at the New York Sheraton and responded this way to a question from a French journalist who wondered “what drives you?”

“I think I should spend my life trying to give back to my country and the world for the great life I’ve had,” said Mr. Clinton. “I owe it to future of the world, children, and my country. I didn’t lose interest in these matters when I stopped being president.  And, frankly, I like it. The reason I do it is I find it immensely rewarding. It’s more interesting than anything I can imagine doing.”

Straightening The Noodles at Clinton Global Initiative, Plus Jolie-Pitt


NEW YORK — This morning at the opening session of the Clinton Global Initiative, Lee Scott, Wal-Mart’s chief executive, explained to hundreds of international leaders why his  corporate behemoth, one of the iconic companies of this age, has very quickly embraced environmental sensitivity and energy efficiency as a business strategy. It’s all about the benefits that occur when you “straighten the noodles,” he said.

Specifically, Mr. Scott described what happened when Wal-Mart asked executives at Betty Crocker, the makers of Hamburger Helper, to join its effort to be greener and more sustainable. Hamburger Helper responded, he said, by making its half moon noodles straight. That simple change, Mr. Scott said, reduced the size of Hamburger Helper packages, enabled more packages to fit into trucks, reduced substantially the number of truck shipments, saved energy, and reduced global warming gases. “It’s basic good business practices that ultimately cause the price to go down,” he said. 

Well, how do you do. It’s not as though environmentalists and green economists, Paul Hawken in particular, haven’t noted the convergence of environmental and economic values for at least 35 years. Nor is it unusual for a chief executive of a company as notoriously ill-suited to advancing the public interest as Walmart to seek a green halo to improve their public image. But Mr. Scott’s focus on sustainable business practices appears genuine, and it’s due to the economic sense such a path makes to Wal-Mart. “What has shocked us is that there are benefits far beyond what we imagined,” he said. 

A second program of note today was Angelina Jolie’s appearance on behalf of global education for children of poverty. The Jolie-Pitt collaboration is well represented here. Earlier today Brad (see pix) anounced a $5 million commitment to build new housing in New Orleans. Then this afternoon Ms. Jolie (see pix)stepped to a podium at the New York Sheraton amid a strobe flash firestorm and explained the partnership she’s built during six years of globe trotting on behalf of the world’s refugee children. Her project, Children of Conflict, combines 18 organizations globally to educate children, including Nike and Microsoft. 

I haven’t attended many news conferences featuring Entertainment Tonight superstar celebrities. I was impressed with Ms. Jolie’s intellect and poise. She has clear command of her subject, the result of a global travel schedule that Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist, said today was more active than most UN Secretaries General. President Clinton today commended her work on an American initiative for childhood eduction. Her message was straightforward. “Just a few hours of spending in Iraq would send 150,000 children to school,” she said. “We have to get our priorities in order.”