Best city for geezers? NY lays claim

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New York City seems to be all aglow in being named by the World Health Organization to its Global Network of Age-friendly cities. As Clyde Haberman reported about the event in the July 1 New York Times,

“It makes us members of a club of people who are struggling, in their own and perhaps much different ways, with learning about and thinking about and approaching this issue,” said Linda I. Gibbs, the deputy mayor for health and human services. “It’s really a lovely recognition.”

One reason for the acknowledgment was a plan that city officials and the New York Academy of Medicine announced last year to improve life for older New Yorkers. All sorts of ideas were put forth, on matters like transportation, housing, health care, job training, nutrition and cultural activities. To a large degree, it was more a wish list than a concrete program. But at least it showed that the city was thinking about issues that will only become more dominant.

Like other cities, New York has a population that is aging, if you will forgive a somewhat meaningless word that we are stuck with. After all, everyone is aging. It’s called living. The only people not aging are dead.

WHO says, of its Global Nework of Age-friendly Cities, that the problem lies with the fact that too many of us are aging and not dying.

Populations in almost every corner of the world are growing older. The greatest changes are occurring in less-developed countries. By 2050, it is estimated that 80% of the expected 2 billion people aged 60 years or over will live in low or middle income countries. The Network aims to help cities create urban environments that allow older people to remain active and healthy participants in society.

To that end, the Network got off the ground a few years ago, and now lists a few cities across the globe as having been accepted for membership. This week’s bulletin (excerpted above and below) lists the Big Apple as the first U.S. member, although the PDF of member cities also lists Portland, and one has to wonder how Portland’s going to feel about all of New York’s hoopla.

The WHO Age-friendly Cities initiative began in 2006 by identifying the key elements of the urban environment that support active and healthy ageing. Research from 33 cities, confirmed the importance for older people of access to public transport, outdoor spaces and buildings, as well as the need for appropriate housing, community support and health services. But it also highlighted the need to foster the connections that allow older people to be active participants in society, to overcome ageism and to provide greater opportunities for civic participation and employment.

The Global Network builds on these principles but takes them a significant step further by requiring participating cities to commence an ongoing process of assessment and implementation. Network members are committed to taking active steps to creating a better environment for their older residents.

A few years ago (2006) the Sperling’s Best Places people came out with a “Best Cities” list about which do the best job of caring for their aging folks. The “Best Cities for Seniors” study examined the state of senior care in the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the United States.

“This is different from the usual studies of retirement living,” said Bert Sperling, the study’s primary author. “When we first retire, we have the energy for traveling and sightseeing. At some point, we will all need specialized resources and facilities to help us cope with aging. That’s what this study examines.”

This unique new study, produced in partnership with Bankers Life and Casualty Company, identifies cities that offer the best resources for less active seniors. The study analyzed nearly 50 categories such as various senior living facilities, comprehensive medical care, specialized transportation services, and a significant senior population.

Top Ten Cities for Seniors

  1. Portland, OR
  2. Seattle, WA
  3. San Francisco, CA
  4. Pittsburgh, PA
  5. Milwaukee, WI
  6. Philadelphia, PA
  7. New York, NY
  8. Boston, MA
  9. Cincinnati, OH
  10. Chicago, IL

Haberman takes issue with that ‘Senior’ word along with the ‘aging’ word. “What does that make the rest of the populace — juniors?” This space (an unabashed fan of Sperling’s #3 city — sorry, #7; but you’re my #2) concurs. But Great Geezer Towns probably wouldn’t cut it with WHO.

Grim outlook for public transportation

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Can we have a functional, effective transportation system in the U.S.? Can we afford not to? Those were the questions addressed by former Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta and a panel of experts at a full-house 9 AM event at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club Friday. Oh — and how are we going to pay for it all? The program was titled “Funding the Transportation System of the Future.”

“Within the next two decades,” Mineta said in his introductory remarks, “the Census Bureau estimates that the U.S. population will increase by as many as 50 million people. This population growth, combined with a growing backlog of overdue maintenance work on roads and transit systems, creates a need for significantly expanded transportation revenues. However, the current political climate is generally unfavorable to tax increases.”

The ensuing discussion continually returned to two general points: first, that our parents and grandparents funded the transit infrastructures and systems we now enjoy and it is incumbent upon us to do the same for our children and grandchildren; and second, as Mineta and others repeatedly said, that there is no political will anywhere to do the latter. One illustration of the first point was cited by panelist William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association, who observed that “the New York subway system was built 106 years ago for $35 million — and you couldn’t get a feasibility study today for $35 million.”

Given the fact that most cities and counties could spend $35 million on overdue maintenance alone, most panelist comments and audience questions concerned the issue of finding funds at a time when tax increases are not very popular. “Creative funding” solutions appear to be the answer, even if there is currently far more creativity around than funds.

Asha Weinstein Agrawal, Director of the Mineta Transportation Institute‘s National Transportation Finance Center, cited a public opinion poll released yesterday (“one of those phone calls at dinner time…”) that surveyed 1500 people in English and Spanish to test receptiveness to eight variations of a possible gasoline tax. In general, opposition to such a tax is high, she said, but acceptance increases in proportion to benefits which individuals can see: tie the tax to emissions per vehicle and thus reduce greenhouse gases, for example. Agrawal recommended consideration of taxes linked to environmental effects.

Panelist John Horsley, Executive Director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said that because of funding cuts and declining revenues (from road usage fees etc), the U.S. Highway Fund will be insolvent some time between August and October of 2011, with the resultant loss of approximately 1 million jobs. He cited a few bright spots such as several states going ahead with high speed rail projects, “four states have actually raised gas taxes, Kansas has increased the sales tax, and New Hampshire sold itself a bridge” (which will get paid off through tolls.) High occupancy toll lanes were another potential funding source Horsley said could help until “fiscal sanity returns: investing in something good (rather than) borrowing forever.”

The consensus was aptly covered in one summation by California Senator Alan Lowenthal: “It’s a very difficult time for transportation.”

Whereupon this reporter got back on the #1 California Muni bus (catch a back seat, work on your computer for 30 minutes, no parking fee, no traffic hassle) and went home.

Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus speaks on micro-lending — and world hope

Muhammad Yunus, Managing Director, Grameen Ban...
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Recently, someone remarked to Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi banker/ economist/ crusader against poverty, that he must be a very rich man.

“I said, why would I be a rich man?” he tells an attentive audience. “Well, you have all those companies; you must be rich to have all those companies.”  Yunus scratches his chin and smiles the beguiling smile that makes you want to be a believer. “Oh. I start these companies, but I would never own them.” You are now a believer.

Yunus was in San Francisco Monday, at a social entrepreneurship program sponsored by the Commonwealth Club. He is winding up a U.S. tour promoting his new book, Building Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism That Serves Humanity’s Most Pressing Needs. In the process, he is promoting a theory that social business — business operated for the benefit of society (such as the poor who are commonly the beneficiaries and owners of Yunus’ companies) — can and should be a viable segment of the global economy.

Grameen Bank, which was begun in 1976 with $27 out of Yunus’ pocket and now provides loans to more than 8,100,000 borrowers — no collateral, just good faith and trust — would seem to prove his point. Defaults on Grameen micro loans are so few as to make Fannie Mae weep.

From micro loans, Yunus expanded into business ventures on the same basic principle: to achieve one or more social objectives through the operation of the company. The investors/owners can gradually recoup the money invested, but cannot take any dividend beyond that point.

There are now Grameen (the word refers to a rural village) companies in banking, agriculture, healthcare, telecommunications and other areas.  Yunus gave one as an example of why he believes the principle works:

Grameen and Group Danone went into a joint venture to create a yogurt fortified with micro-nutrients to decrease malnutrition for the children of Bangladesh. The yogurt is produced with solar and bio gas energy and is served in environmentally friendly packaging. The first plant started production in Late 2006. The 10-year plan is to establish 50+ plants, create several hundred distribution jobs and self-degradable packaging.

The environment is protected, children get healthy, grow up to create businesses. Yunus spoke of one skeptic saying, “where will I get a job?” and said he explained, “You don’t look for a job, you create a job.”

Grameen Bank has more than 2500 branches — now including three in New York (where Yunus would like to see payday loan and check-cashing operations go out of business), one in Omaha, and in the near future: one in San Francisco. If Yunus is enjoying the proving out of his theories and the lifting of vast numbers of people out of poverty, he may be enjoying most of all the reminiscences about those who scoffed at his notions in the 1970s.

“They said the poor were not credit worthy,” he smiles. “I was told, about non-collateralized loans, ‘You can’t do that!’ After 2008, I wanted to ask, ‘Who is credit-worthy?'”

Abortion foes winning with fear tactics

This is the way abortion rights end (apologies to T.S. Eliot): not with a bang, but with something worse than a whimper. The steady, relentless chipping away of those rights, state by state. And where a straightforward denial of women’s rights might face opposition, abortion foes are stooping to emotion-twisting, privacy-invading, fear-inducing tactics the likes of which have not been seen in a half century.

The “pro-lifers” (which is to say, the people who worry about some potential, unwanted life but don’t give a tinker’s dam for the lives of grown — often just barely grown — women) want abortion absolutely banned in this country. They are pushing closer to that goal every day. They like to talk about “protecting the unborn,” but the big losers in this dangerous game will be those who most need protection: poor, disadvantaged, un-empowered women.

New York Times editorial writer Dorothy Samuels offered a sharp overview of the dangerous times ahead for women’s rights, after reporting on a recent lunch celebrating the 40th anniversary of New York’s becoming the first state to fully legalize abortion. That law, Samuels notes, “began to reduce the death and injury toll from back-alley abortions and set the stage for the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, which made abortion legal nationwide and recognized a constitutional right to privacy.

But abortion-rights groups are newly anxious about new assaults on women’s reproductive rights, including a fight over abortion that snarled the last days of the health care reform debate. Anti-abortion groups are newly emboldened.

The health care reform law contains advances for women’s reproductive health care, including enlarged access to insurance coverage for maternity care, contraception and other services. But President Obama and pro-choice Congressional lawmakers made abortion coverage vulnerable as part of the effort to secure the measure’s passage.

Kelli Conlin, head of Naral Pro-Choice New York, told guests at the lunch that “anti-choice forces are mobilizing in every single state to limit a woman’s access to abortion in more insidious ways than we can imagine.”

As Ms. Conlin was speaking, members of the Oklahoma House were getting ready to override vetoes of two punishing abortion measures. The state’s Democratic governor, Brad Henry, rightly viewed these intrusions into women’s lives and decision-making as unconstitutional.

One of the measures, which seems destined to spawn copycat bills in other states, requires women to undergo an ultrasound before getting an abortion and further mandates that a doctor or technician set up the monitor so the woman can see it and hear a detailed description of the fetus.

The other law grants protection from lawsuits to doctors who deliberately withhold fetal testing results that might affect a woman’s decision about whether to carry her pregnancy to term.

Several states have either passed or are considering bills that would ban abortion coverage in insurance plans sold through the state exchanges established by the federal health care law.

A new Utah law criminalizes certain behavior by women that results in miscarriage. Embarking on a road that could lead to the Supreme Court, Nebraska last month banned most abortions at the 20th week of pregnancy based on a questionable theory of fetal pain.

About two dozen states are looking at bills to increase counseling requirements or waiting periods prior to abortions. About 20 states are considering new ultrasound requirements. This is on top of an already onerous regimen of state restrictions that has drastically cut down on abortion providers and curtailed a woman’s ability to exercise a constitutionally protected right.

Draconian laws will not stop unintended pregnancies. Once abortion foes succeed in eliminating a woman’s right to privacy and ability to make her own, often difficult, choices the lucrative business of back-alley abortions will once again thrive. And women will die.

Editorial Observer – A Spreading Peril for Women’s Privacy and Freedom – NYTimes.com.

Feds target texting drivers

Distracted drivers are on a trajectory to top drunk drivers in the major U.S. Stupid Road Hazard category, and may turn out to be even harder to combat. But efforts, at least, are being made.

The Department of Transportation on Thursday stepped up its campaign against distracted driving, announcing its first pilot program to study whether increased law enforcement would reduce distracted driving in two East Coast cities.

“Law enforcement will be out on the roads in Syracuse, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn., with one simple message,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. “If a driver is caught with a cellphone in one hand, they’ll end up with a ticket in the other.”

The $600,000 program, modeled on previous safe-driving programs to curb drunk driving and improve seat belt usage, also involves a paid advertising campaign aimed at men and women up to age 49.

The campaign using radio, TV and print ads began April 1 and will continue until April 16 in the Hartford and Syracuse metropolitan areas.

The first wave of high-visibility enforcement began Thursday and will last nine days in Syracuse; in Hartford it will begin Saturday and run through April 16. Subsequent enforcement waves in both cities will take place throughout the year.

As a California driver, and frequent pedestrian, I can certify that vast numbers of drivers are still more concerned with talking or texting than with the threat of a ticket; whether or not enforcement and large fines can wrench folks away from the addiction to constant communication remains to be seen.

Connecticut and New York are among only eight U.S. states and territories, including California, to ban the use of all hand-held devices, including cellphones, while driving.

Twenty states and territories, including California, as well as Washington, D.C., have a ban on texting while driving, while six states have laws that prohibit local jurisdictions from enacting restrictions, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The federal government also introduced new regulations in January that would subject truck and bus drivers who text while driving commercial vehicles to civil or criminal penalties of up to $2,750.

The Transportation Department said results from the pilot study would serve as a model nationwide for employing high-visibility enforcement, education and outreach to reduce distracted-driving behaviors.

In 2008, 5,870 people were killed and an estimated 515,000 people were injured in police-reported crashes in which at least one form of driver distraction was reported, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

On behalf of those half-million victims, and the many of us who fear becoming a similar statistic just because somebody can’t hang up and drive, this space hereby sides with the Department of Transportation on this one.

Law enforcement keeping an eye out for distracted drivers – chicagotribune.com.

Will fatherhood change Rev. Billy?

It’s true. The 50-something Reverend is a new father. Rev. Billy and his gorgeous wife  Savitri, today welcomed Lena Nightstar Talen into the world. If you Facebook friend him you can see her photos.

You may not have encountered Rev. Billy. He is, however, worth encountering. Minister of the Church of Stop Shopping, occasionally the Church of Stop the Bombing or most recently the Church of Life After Shopping, Reverend Billy got out of jail in time for his daughter’s arrival. He was incarcerated (something that happens with some regularity) for creating a mountain of toxic waste from Appalachia and dumping it in the NY lobby of JP Morgan Chase in protest against their financing of mountaintop mining.

Rev. Billy, a performance artist AKA Bill Talen, puts his energies where his beliefs are in ways most of us couldn’t imagine — and certainly couldn’t pull off. He ran unsuccessfully but with gusto for Mayor of New York in the last election. Long before the gun folks targeted Starbucks the Rev was targeting them for driving out the mom and pop stores. (That particular campaign, which included preaching a one-minute anti-Starbucks sermon in every Starbucks in Manhattan, got Starbucks’ attention, prompted a memo to their outlets and resulted in a book titled after that memo, What Should I Do If Reverend Billy Is In My Store.)

The Rev supports equality, gay rights and everyday folks; he laments consumerism, corporate culture, destruction of the environment and other popular evils. His laments, though, are considerably more activist than most. This is partly because he’s gifted and funny, and mostly because he truly believes that one should stand up for principles that matter. Check him out. You may not agree with his passions or his methods, but you won’t be bored.

About those passions, what Rev. Billy wants most is a better world for newcomers like Lena Nightstar. He’s entertaining, but he’s dead serious.

So no, I doubt that fatherhood will slow him down. Congratulations, Savitri & Bill.

New killer: high tech in the front seat

How many people will this latest gadget kill?

Some cool dude can decide between the Boeuf Bourguignonne or the Coq au Vin en route to the restaurant – what difference should running over a pedestrian or two make? Or rear-ending a smaller car with a new baby in the back seat? Maybe he’ll smack into another cool dude flipping through music albums and they can take each other off the map. But it seldom works that way; usually the dead include innocent people who were doing nothing stupid at all.

That, clearly, should be where the line is drawn: when our obsession with high tech and cool toys means we will be killing other folks. But high tech cool toys make a lot of money.

To the dismay of safety advocates already worried about driver distraction, automakers and high-tech companies have found a new place to put sophisticated Internet-connected computers: the front seat.

Technology giants like Intel and Google are turning their attention from the desktop to the dashboard, hoping to bring the power of the PC to the car. They see vast opportunity for profit in working with automakers to create the next generation of irresistible devices.

This week at the Consumer Electronics Show, the neon-drenched annual trade show here (New York City), these companies are demonstrating the breadth of their ambitions, like 10-inch screens above the gearshift showing high-definition videos, 3-D maps and Web pages.

The first wave of these “infotainment systems,” as the tech and car industries call them, will hit the market this year. While built-in navigation features were once costly options, the new systems are likely to be standard equipment in a wide range of cars before long. They prevent drivers from watching video and using some other functions while the car is moving, but they can still pull up content as varied as restaurant reviews and the covers of music albums with the tap of a finger.

It really is beside the point to blame Intel and Google. Drunk drivers kill people and nobody blames Old Crow. Or, as the NRA folks like to say, “Guns don’t kill, people do.” People, lacking the common sense to admit that hurtling around in a few tons of steel requires paying attention while you hurtle, are going to kill people with these new toys.

Safety advocates say the companies behind these technologies are tone-deaf to mounting research showing the risks of distracted driving — and to a growing national debate about the use of mobile devices in cars and how to avoid the thousands of wrecks and injuries this distraction causes each year.

“This is irresponsible at best and pernicious at worst,” Nicholas A. Ashford, a professor of technology and policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said of the new efforts to marry cars and computers. “Unfortunately and sadly, it is a continuation of the pursuit of profit over safety — for both drivers and pedestrians.”

One system on the way this fall from Audi lets drivers pull up information as they drive. Heading to Madison Square Garden for a basketball game? Pop down the touch pad, finger-scribble the word “Knicks” and get a Wikipedia entry on the arena, photos and reviews of nearby restaurants, and animations of the ways to get there.

A notice that pops up when the Audi system is turned on reads: “Please only use the online services when traffic conditions allow you to do so safely.”

Oh, sure. As if someone with the arrogance to believe he or she can drive a car while drinking a latte, negotiating a business deal and reserving tickets to the ballgame is going to notice a little thing like a kid on a wobbly bike just ahead.

The technology and car companies say that safety remains a priority. They note that they are building in or working on technology like voice commands and screens that can simultaneously show a map to the driver and a movie to a front-seat passenger, as in the new Jaguar XJ.

“We are trying to make that driving experience one that is very engaging,” said Jim Buczkowski, the director of global electrical and electronics systems engineering at Ford. “We also want to make sure it is safer and safer. It is part of what our DNA will be going forward.”

Ford’s new MyFord system lets the driver adjust temperature settings or call a friend while the car is in motion, while its built-in Web browser works only when the car is parked. Audi says it will similarly restrict access to complex and potentially distracting functions. But in general, drivers will bear much of the responsibility for limiting their use of these devices.

Drivers are proving every day that they would rather multi-task than pay attention to their driving. Lives are lost every hour to distracted drivers. More lives will be lost to people engaging in Mr. Buczkowski’s driving experience because driving without paying attention is not part of our DNA.

There is a family joke around our house about my husband, who doesn’t eat, drink or talk on cell phones while riding and has certainly never drunk anything or phoned anybody himself while driving, suggesting that “a car is something intended to get you from point A to point B.”

Maybe we should quit laughing.

Driven to Distraction – Despite Risks, Carmakers Integrate the Web With the Dash – Series – NYTimes.com.

Gay Rights, Abortion Lose – – Meanness Wins. Is this the 50s?

The New York State Senate‘s rejection of a bill that would have allowed marriage between two people who love each other — but happen to be gay — is just the most recent in a string of set-backs in the area of gay rights. Other set-backs have been occurring, or are currently looming, in women’s rights, specifically reproductive rights. One wonders about the mood of this country.

This particular one wonders if anyone else is harking back, with more than a little sadness, to the 1950s. If you weren’t around then, I can tell you it was a strange decade. Great optimism for the future — well, there’s not much of that today — while simultaneously there was terrible meanness behind the McCarthy witch hunts and the denial of women’s rights, plus a certain amount of smugness embedded into a bland, national complacency.

At ladies’ bridge parties there were small china ashtrays on each corner of the table and the conversation usually drifted toward those lovely wonder drugs emerging to give instant relief for any problem. The conversation never drifted toward back-alley abortions, unless someone had recently died and the others knew how it had happened. Those of us who had jobs — running a house, entertaining for the husband’s business, raising children; those were not considered jobs — usually had male counterparts doing the exact same thing for twice the salary. One did not complain. If one were middle class white, and involved in any sort of civil rights work, one never brought that up at the bridge table.  It was a strange decade.

Today’s New York Times story quotes senators who voted against the same-sex marriage bill as saying “the public is gripped by economic anxiety and remain(s) uneasy about changing the state’s definition of marriage.” The San Francisco Chronicle article includes a comment from sponsoring Senator Thomas Duane, “I wasn’t expecting betrayal.” I’m sure those are both accurate reports. Whatever its underlying economic, political or social fears, the public seems also to harbor a degree of meanness in discounting the rights of others.

If you substitute a measure of cynicism or hopelessness about the future for the complacency of a half-century ago, and throw in the self-righteousness of those who for religious or political reasons justify the denial of rights to their fellow citizens, it’s easy to draw parallels between this decade and that one long ago.

In the fifties the groundwork was being laid for civil rights, for women’s liberation, for Roe v Wade and the upheavals that eventually led to progress, by courageous and energetic people of all sorts. I wish I could list myself in that number; I was at the bridge table trying to pretend normalcy in a life gone amok.  Today there are others working just as hard for the rights of their fellow men and women.

I hope they can keep the faith.