The Upside of the Economic Downslide

Less traffic. According to the WSJ:

Rush-hour congestion — defined as moving slower than free-flowing
traffic — in the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan markets fell 29% in
2008 versus 2007, said Rick Schuman, a vice president at Inrix, a
Washington company that measures traffic patterns. It fell an
additional 7% in this year's first quarter.

The decline in miles driven began when gasoline prices crept above
$3 a gallon in November 2007. By the time prices began to retreat from
their $4-a-gallon high in mid-2008, the number of unemployed Americans
began to rise.

No drop of such significance has been previously recorded. With the
exceptions of a few short-lived dips during previous recessions,
Americans have driven more every year since national record-keeping
began.

The impact of the 1.9% decrease in miles driven this year is
magnified by the nature of congestion. The capacity of many major U.S.
roads is at a constant tipping point, Mr. Schuman said. When capacity
is reached, the addition or subtraction of a relatively small number of
vehicles can have an outsize effect on traffic flow. That is especially
true at the nation's bottlenecks — when traffic moves at less than
half the speed of free-flowing traffic — the number and severity of
which decreased by about one-third from 2007 to 2008, Mr. Schuman said.

Gas consumption in California is down:

Gasoline consumption in California began falling in April 2006, and for
11 straight calendar quarters dropped below gas use in the year-earlier
period even though the state added 790,000 new licensed drivers.
First-quarter gasoline use hasn't yet been released by the California
State Board of Equalization, which on Thursday said Californians
consumed 1.21 billion gallons of gasoline in January, down 22 million
gallons, or 1.8%, from the previous January.

More land available for preservation groups to buy, in places such as the Hudson Valley:

Real estate in the Hudson Valley has turned into
a buyer's market. Open space is at bargain-basement prices, and new
construction has stalled.

For land preservation groups, this is an unprecedented window of opportunity.

"Now
is the time to buy, before the next wave of development pressure
occurs," said Steve Rosenberg, executive director of the Scenic Hudson
Land Trust.

And in Florida, the rise of the "un-developers":

Two men have big plans for the Georgetown property, 160 acres on
the southwest side of the Tampa peninsula. But they are not planning to
build.

[Greg] Chelius is state director for the Trust for Public Land. {Alex] Size is from
the nonprofit's St. Petersburg office. Because of the steep decline in
property values here, they believe they have a chance to help local
government purchase and preserve this stretch of waterfront. A few
months ago, it was slated to be covered with luxury condominiums,
"mansion" town houses and single-family homes.

Instead, Chelius and Size spoke about the native plants that could be
restored — the sabal palmetto palm, the seagrape trees, the three
native species of mangrove. With the vegetation would come more native
animals, more birds.

"We're sort of like the un-developers right now," Chelius said, smiling.

As you might expect, greenhouse gas emissions are down:

A report issued Monday
by the Washington-based Environmental Integrity Project says that
because of the recent economic slowdown and milder-than-usual weather,
carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. power plants dropped 3.1 percent in
2008, a departure from the recent trends in power plant carbon dioxide
emissions, which have risen 0.9 percent since 2003, and 4.5 percent
since 1998, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency.

And, most astonishing, the possibility that unemployment might actually be health-enhancing

The health of a population tends to improve slightly when the
economy goes south. While some causes of death, such as suicide,
increase during a recession, many others decrease. Among them: car
crashes, industrial accidents, heart attacks and, in some cities,
infant deaths.

"I was very surprised at first," said Christopher
Ruhm, a professor of economics at the University of North Carolina at
Greensboro. In studies over the past 10 years, Ruhm has consistently
found death rates decline during recessions and rise when the economy
expands. If unemployment rises 1 percent, he estimates the death rate
will fall by about half a percent.

"I tracked things like unemployment and mortality and found that they were almost a mirror image of each other," Ruhm said.

Other researchers have found evidence of improved health during
economic downturns in Cuba, Germany, Japan and Spain. Think of it as a
silver lining — and perhaps a measure of how much our unhealthy
lifestyles and workaholic tendencies can get the best of us during boom
times.

It's been true for me; lost weight, a lowered blood pressure, better outlook. Believe it or don't.

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