Gassed out

You've probably received a plug for this latest bit of e-mail rabble-rousing by now; four weeks before the event, I'd gotten them at work and home. I'm talking about the Great American Gas-Out that some would-be crusader has called for Friday, April 30, in order to show "the so-called oil cartel" what-for. "Brainwash" was, appropriately, the earliest source listed for one e-mailing I received. "If there was just ONE day when no one purchased any gasoline, prices would drop drastically," Brainwash declares. "I have decided to see how many Americans we can get to NOT BUY ANY GASOLINE on one particular day!"

This is plainly silly; all that day's gas sales would be made up on the next and previous days. But I'm afraid this idea is just dumb enough to catch on big-time, especially once the talk-radio thought-pimps get hold of it. Nothing offends the American sense of decency like the prospect of paying more money for gasoline! Never mind that the stuff scarcely costs any more (in unadjusted dollars!) than it did when a new Toyota cost $5,000. Never mind all the damage that buying gas, burning it, building roads to burn it on, and doing what it takes to make sure we can keep buying it, does to our air, cities, waterways, foreign policy, and just about anything else you care to name.

Now I'm all for squeezing the oil barons. But the way to do it is to pay more for gas and put the difference into transit, salmon-habitat protection, and toxic cleanup. Hint: Don't hold your breath waiting to get a reasonably higher gas tax. But if you want to send messages, how 'bout David Ortman's notion of a rotating oil boycott, directed at each of the big oil companies for two months (at least until they all merge into one). That would send a tougher message: We know what you're up to, and we know where you live.

Let's at least have a Gas-Out Week, which might actually get the petro barons' attention and remind us of how much gas we burn. If you can't get by on a tank a week, maybe you should think about where you live, where you work, and how you get between them.

Then, on to Gas-Out Month. . . .

Down the drain

How's this for a case study of Seattle process at work? Depending on how you count, this is the 10th or 15th anniversary of the city's failure to do what it knows it needs to do to provide decent public toilets for all its citizens. In 1984, the Downtown Human Services Council surveyed public rest-rooms and showers (or the lack thereof) downtown. Five years later, it and the UW School of Architecture sponsored a much-lauded design charette to nudge the idea along.

And 10 years later? The city has set out a few smelly, unsafe portable potties and (gilding the skunk cabbage) covered some with somewhat-classier camouflage shells. Meanwhile, another prospect looms: The slick, safe, self-cleaning toilets France's JC DeCaux has all over Europe. DeCaux would build them and new bus shelters at no cost here, just as it has (to more acclaim than you ever thought a toilet could elicit) in San Francisco. The trade-off: DeCaux wants the franchise to sell advertising on the toilet kiosks and shelters. And for the past three years, this has induced that painful condition, with elements of both paralysis and the conniptions, known as Seattle Process.

City Council president Sue Donaldson, though long an advocate of public facilities, has fretted conspicuously about how "we don't need pictures of people in their underwear on the sidewalk." Has she seen the 20-foot Wonderbra babe on a wall across from the Seattle Art Museum? And all the Jockey and Calvin Klein billboard bods that have gone before?

The real fear of course is that if sidewalk ads go up, billboard king Barry Ackerley will sue to overturn the city's hard-fought sign ordinance, which forbids new, big billboards of the sort he builds.

Not on my sidewalk you don't

Scott Surdyke, a local planner/developer, claims that another powerful commercial interest has also stood in the way of the street loos: the downtown department stores. He recounts that six years ago, as a student intern at the Downtown Seattle Association, "I got charged up for DeCaux" and called the local department stores' marketing people to pitch the idea—and they called the DSA brass to complain. "They did not want the Gap and other competitors advertising on the sidewalk in front of their stores."

Kate Joncas, who took charge of DSA after Surdyke left, tells a different tale. She says that a number of members had "real reservations" about the ad-decked kiosks, "because our streets are so pure now." And, of course, "Each merchant is going to be concerned about what's in front of their store." But she says Bon March頡nd Nordstrom reps didn't play any particular role in the debate and voted with the majority to endorse the street loos.

Joncas also notes that she "never heard any input" from Ackerley on the DeCaux questions, even though he's on the DSA board. That shows sensible restraint. It would be the depth of ingratitude (and deeply tacky) for Ackerley to stop the city from providing folks a clean, private place to go, after the city put up $74 million to rebuild the Coliseum/KeyArena for his Sonics and will now bail out its luxury boxes. All the more reason to say, "Have you no sense of decency, sir?"

No shelter from the storms

Meanwhile, the bus shelters get ever more tattered, tagged, etched, and shattered. Metro says it's not deliberately deferring maintenance until it can offer a joint kiosk contract with the city. It says it just takes a while to get replacement glass for downtown shelters, which are standing open to the winds of this endless winter howl, their glass panels unreplaced. Betcha they'd be fixed fast if they had slick ads on them. Meanwhile, JC DeCaux has new contracts to build toilets in San Jose and Palo Alto and to install more in San Francisco.

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