Tag Archives: Bicycle

Want to Prevent Oil Spill Disasters? Stop Driving

Jason Henderson of AlterNet brings us this timely article on how our car culture is partially to blame for this most recent and almost all other oil spills.  The Deepwater Horizon rig disaster has put offshore drilling back at the center of our political and social discussion, and self-proclaimed progressives need to take a stand.  Henderson calls the focus on green cars “a distraction.”  Green cars still need oil, and progressives need to examine how much their transportation habits contribute to this type of ecological disaster.  To be honest, we still need oil–lots of it–to live how we live today, with computers, pharmaceuticals and plastics; but we don’t need to be drilling into the furthest corners of the earth.  We need to conserve oil for things that are more important than driving.

It is well known that America consumes a quarter of the world’s oil, and 70 percent of that (17.5 percent of world oil production) goes towards America’s driving habit.  Much of this is wasted on short trips that could be made by other means.  92 percent of Americans own at least one car, which consumes oil, puts out CO2 and costs them money in insurance and repairs.  There’s no way that we could build enough coal or nuclear power plants to make the switch to all-electric cars.  Even if we did, those power plants would produce still more CO2 or nuclear waste, and would necessitate an overhaul of our urban infrastructure so as to install charging stations all across America.  Even alternative energy forms need oil to be produced and maintained.

Henderson argues that this should seem unintelligent to any thinking person, but more-so embarrassing to any progressive:

Any progressive-leftist-liberal-“green”-environmentalist cannot, with a clear conscience, drive his or her children to school and expect those children to find a planet they’ll thrive on. He or she cannot smugly shrug that the transit system does not go where he or she wants to go, or that the distances are too far to ride a bicycle. Any able-bodied progressive who regularly exclaims “But I need to drive!” is in need of some deep reflection on his or her values and especially the idea of a green car.

Green cars are still cars, which consume a lot of oil.  “The Prius will not cut it,” Henderson says.  He also argues against carbon offsets, which allow people with enough money to buy some sort of energy savings so as to “make up for” their not-so-green lifestyle.  There are a number of reasons for this, according to Henderson:

Some progressives do this, admittedly, because they are lazy. Others feel “special” and thus entitled to live in scattered sprawl, drive across town to work in less than 20 minutes and then to a dentist on another side of town in another 20 minutes. Many progressive Americans, particularly in coastal “blue” states, expect to be able to drive to the beach and NOT see any signs of oil extraction. That is not progressive. That is imperialism. Those cars are fueled and built with oil from Nigeria, Iraq, Louisiana and Alaska — places laid to waste by unfettered oil extraction…Many of you “progressive” motorists are probably seething in defensive, self-righteous posture if you managed to read this far. You drive a Prius, so you’re doing your part. Or you don’t drive much. Or your groceries are too heavy — you need a car. In the Bay Area and many parts of California, a common refrain is that there are too many hills, so “I have to drive.” Populists will shout that the working poor need their cars to get to work on time and that child care and household chores all but require a car.

He also argues that, had the Gulf Coast disaster happened in the Bay Area, the outcry would have been massive, instead of the passe response that this disaster has generated relative to events such as Exxon Valdez and Cosco Busan.  He encourages people to find ways that they could make walking and biking a bigger part of their lives.  Most trips are under five miles, easy biking distance, and with minimal creativity (backpack, small trailer, jitney delivery service), hauling loads can be easy without a car.  There are also the added benefits of better health and cleaner air, as well as using renewable bags and other resources instead of plastics.  If we used oil more wisely, we could use it to prepare for a future with less or no oil, where communities will be closer together, transportation will be based on rail and other more efficient modes,  and energy can come from sources that still need oil but much less of it, including solar and wind.

Henderson encourages progressives to either change their ways or stop being obstructionist.  Making life easier for pedestrians and bicyclists often means making it harder (i.e. more fair) for drivers, who have been pandered to for too long.  We need to stop letting rich out-of-towners park for free when we charge the urban poor to use transit.  Henderson comments, “I see you progressives every day — the Prius in the bike lane, the speeding, honking Subaru and the hybrid SUVs careening at pedestrians and cyclists, with fashionable Obama stickers or save this/save that bumper stickers on the cars. Honking, hoarding, fighting for a parking space at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. It is madness.”  Progressives need to set an example of living within our means, especially relative to oil.

The End of the Automobile Era?

Is this wishful thinking on my part?  Probably, but at least it’s good to know other people are thinking the same thing.  Norman Garrick of Planetizen brings us this story on a possible turn of events away from cars and towards people.  On Thursday, the Portland, Oregon City Council voted 5-0 to approve a plan that has the goal of increasing bike ridership in the city from 6%, already the highest of any major city in the country, to 25%.  On the same day, the New York City Department of Transportation announced the permanent closing of sections of Broadway to vehicular traffic.  These two cities are and have always been on the leading edge of urban planning in America, and their support of alternative modes of transportation sends a strong message to other cities in the country.  Garrick makes a point that this trend has spread from blue states to cities like Oklahoma City and Little Rock, indicating that this is growing beyond a political issue to a more general planning one.

There are a number of signs indicating that the car culture is on the decline.  The number of vehicles per person has been declining since 2001, and vehicle miles traveled have been declining since 2004.  Garrick points out that both of these peaks are well before the most recent economic downturn, which has probably hastened the decline of these numbers.  Cities have also realized that it is cheaper for them to cater to pedestrians, bicycles and transit than to the car.  Garrick points out that Portland’s fifteen years of bike infrastructure building has cost the same as about a mile of freeway ($60 million).  It is also becoming cool to go car-lite or car-free, and areas that are more pedestrian-friendly are attracting tomorrow’s movers and shakers.

With oil floating at $80 a barrel with nowhere to go but up, chances are we are on the verge of a new era.  If car companies new what was good for them, they may start getting into the streetcar manufacturing business as cars continue to phase out.  Garrick finishes his story with this hopeful message:

The really good news in this story is that this could be a transition to a time when the carnage from motor vehicle crashes will no longer be considered an accepted part of modern life. A time when our urban places will once more be designed for people and not be trashed to accommodate cars. And when the profligate burning for mobility of the earth’s finite store of petroleum will be looked at as a quaint relic of the past. A past not unlike the one now regulated to the movies where people smoked in doctor’s offices and on airplanes. A past that causes us to say: what were they thinking?

The End of the Cul-de-Sac is Nigh

Lloyd Alter of Treehugger brings us this story on the final days of the cul-de-sac.  He starts by explaining how kids love playing in cul-de-sacs.  Even I will admit that the one time I lived on a cul-de-sac I would spend hours sometimes every day playing hockey in the asphalt circle with the other neighborhood kids.  However, we weren’t allowed to cross the arterial street that our cul-de-sac connected to, because the high speeds of the cars, lack of crosswalks and sidewalks made it very unsafe.  Alter mentions a study from Davis, California, showing that fatal crashes were twice as common in areas built after 1980 than in the old, gridded part of town.  In addition, 59% of trips in the old part of town were made by foot, bike and transit, whereas 14% were made by these modes in the newer parts of town.

Municipalities are beginning to realize the high costs of cul-de-sac development.  Alter quotes a Charlotte, North Carolina study on fire stations in parts of town with high v. low connectivity (i.e. cul-de-sacs):

The least-connected service areas served 5,700 to 7,300 households; the most-connected service areas served 20,800 to 25,900 households. That means there are dramatic differences in the fiscal efficiency of individual fire stations. The stations in least-connected areas cost $586 to $740 per capita annually; the stations in most-connected areas cost $159 to $206 per capita annually.

Virginia has passed a law in the last year that will make cul-de-sacs responsible for their own maintenance, and a number of cities, including Austin, Portland and Charlotte, have passed or are working on ordinances to discourage cul-de-sacs.  I agree with Alter and look forward to the return of the grid in American cities.

Win-Win Transportation Emission Reduction Strategies: Good News for Copenhagen

First of all, I must apologize.  It has been over a month since I’ve written.  I have started a new semester, finished five graduate school applications, and have gone through an unusually busy time at work, but mostly, I wanted to be able to give this story due diligence.  I’ll probably have some stories backed up to work on and hopefully will get back to my normal writing schedule soon.

This story from Todd Litman of Planetizen is a doozie of a story on transportation policy.  It took me forever to read it because I wanted to read all the links from his page, some of which I will copy but many you will have to go to his page to see.  In light of the climate conference at Copenhagen in December, Litman comments on how transportation policy can be changed to help reduce carbon emissions, congestion, sprawl, and a number of other social ills, while contributing to economic growth.  He calls these “Win-Win transportation emission reduction strategies.”  He lists a number of strategies, as well as how much they could potentially reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT):

  • Pay-As-You-Drive insurance and registration fees (8-10%): This would mean changing the insurance industry so that people would pay insurance based on the distance they drive (since people who drive more are more likely to be in a car accident) rather than a flat monthly fee regardless of how much you drive.  This would encourage people to drive less, switch to more efficient modes, and would make it easier for low-income individuals to afford car insurance.
  • Efficient parking pricing and cash out (6-10%): This involves making most parking pay parking instead of free.  It would make places where parking is in greater demand higher priced while making less-desirable parking cheaper.  This would reduce traffic generated by people circling a block trying to find a parking spot, and would spread out parking in a more efficient way so that existing parking could be maximized.  It would also encourage people to switch to different transportation modes in an effort to not pay for parking.
  • Efficient road pricing (3-6%): This relates to a number of strategies, but two of the major ones are toll roads and congestion pricing.  Toll roads would require users to pay a fee to drive on the road, so that the road could be maintained by user fees and not paid for by the taxes of people who may or may not actually use the road.  Congestion pricing requires people to pay a fee to drive in congested areas.  This was pioneered in London‘s downtown, and has had great effects as far as reducing automobile congestion.  Toll roads may encourage sprawl to a degree in that they make exurban growth possible like any freeway, but both of these strategies limit the number of cars on the road, encourage ride sharing and transit, and can encourage other modes of travel.
  • Mobility management programs (4-8%): This is essentially a plan and a set of goals that coordinates the other strategies listed here.  It includes creating a document and staff that are concerned with implementing these strategies and tracking their performance.
  • Transit and ridesharing priority (3-9%): This strategy involves creating High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) and HOT (HOV lanes that allow single-occupancy vehicles for a toll) lanes.  These can create an incentive to carpool or to take transit, especially if they have their own separated right-of-way or on- and off-ramps for added convenience.  They can, however, encourage sprawl, much like toll roads.
  • Walking and cycling improvements (2-6%): This involves either creating new pathways for bikes and pedestrians or making existing facilities more attractive and safe.  This, obviously, could encourage some people to walk or bike instead of driving, but it could also encourage people to drive less and walk part of their trips instead of driving all the way.  It also reduces congestion and is generally favorable from an economic perspective.
  • Smart growth planning reforms (4-12%): This is in many ways related to previous strategies, but the main thing that it implies is mixing uses and creating transportation networks with greater connectivity for all modes.  This would encourage people to use alternative modes to reach work or retail services, since they would be closer together, or at least allow them to take shorter trips.  Smart growth communities are selling at a premium and are a great economic investment.
  • Freight transport management (0.5-2%): Although this strategy only focuses on a small population, trucks have a considerable impact on their environment, not just in emissions, but in congestion due to their large size.  The strategies listed here include better coordination between water, rail and truck transport, and introducing other types of freight delivery such as bicycle freight for intra-city deliveries.
  • Carsharing (1-2%): This is a fairly new technique where a government, neighborhood or company can buy a fleet of cars, position them strategically in an area, and charge an hourly and by-mile fee to use them.  This eliminates the need for an individual to own a car, but makes it so that one will be available when other modes won’t get the job done.  Zipcar is at the forefront of this movement in the US.  This does a great job of getting cars off the road, but so far it has mostly been employed in urban areas and used by people who didn’t drive much to start with.
  • Tax shifting (5-15%): This strategy could be the one that makes the biggest impact.  It would involve charging fuel producers a fee based on the carbon content of their fuel.  Strategies like this have been used in Germany and Japan and have had an enormous impact on the fuel efficiency of cars and on the higher use of other transport modes in those countries.  It seems to work better than trying to create incentives to have better mileage.  It could encourage producers to make cleaner products, car companies to make better cars, and individuals to switch to transit, biking or walking, thus reducing congestion, emissions, accidents, and a number of other ills.

Litman comments on how contemporary planning processes are not coordinated.  A number of different organizations work on a number of different goals which often compete.  These organizations need to synchronize their work so that these greater goals can be accomplished without stepping on anyone’s toes.

The prices to consumers for the current way we develop are high.  Right now, anyone who pays taxes is funding road and parking projects that they may never use, often at the expense of other travel modes.  Many of Litman’s proposed strategies would shift costs to users rather than to society.  Also, with added revenues, improvements could be made to other types of infrastructure that could encourage environmental goals.

Litman also shows how these policies would aid economic development.  American communities generally have a greater GDP per capita when they also have better transit options.  On the contrary, GDP per capita goes down as car mileage goes up.  Increased efficiency would lead to increased productivity, decreased emissions, and a number of other benefits.

My View: Bicyclists, don’t worry, you’re in the Gaines plan

This article from Lester Abberger, Rick Hall and Dewayne Carver has turned out to be a bit of a head scratcher for me.  It’s written in response to an article that I spent way more time than I should have looking for on Tallahassee.com, all to no avail, so I don’t have the entire conversation, but the issue seems to be that the redevelopment plans for Tallahassee’s Gaines Street don’t include bike lanes.  Instead, they expect bicyclists to share the travel lanes with automobiles.  As far as I can tell, there’s only one travel lane in either direction, but an area between the opposing lanes has been provided so that cars can pass bicyclists.  The authors claim that putting in bike lanes would be unsafe because the bicyclists would be in an area where they could get hit by the opening doors of parallel-parked cars, and because the added width of the travel lane would encourage drivers to speed.  The guidelines they drew up for the development are certainly flashy, but light on the subject of bikes.  I have a few comments.  First of all, if you had back-in slant parking, it would take care of the doors problem.  Second, I give them a week or two before there’s a car crash in the median area when two cars going opposite directions try to pass bicyclists at the same time.  But here’s my question: is it a good idea to have cyclists and drivers sharing a lane on an urban street?  On low-congestion, residential streets, it’s no big deal, but on a busy, urban street, there’s a lot more conflict.  Many bicyclists report being victims of road rage, and this is increased when they are forced to share the road with drivers.  So, in my first mad grab for comments, I ask you, what do you think?  Is it safe for bikes and cars to share a lane on urban streets?  I think it would also be good, especially if you live in the Tallahassee area, to also comment on the page of the story above.  Hopefully they’ll take the feedback into consideration.

Bicyclists Take to the Streets for Bike to Work Day May 14

The Bay Area‘s Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) published this article about efforts surrounding Bike to Work Day tomorrow (May 14th).  One of the coolest things they’re doing is the Team Bike Challenge, where teams rack up points by riding their bikes and the winner gets a bike rack set up in the public location of their choice.  They also discuss MTC’s plans to quintuple bike infrastructure spending and encourage TOD.  There are two things keeping me from biking to work tomorrow: I don’t have work tomorrow; and I don’t have a bike (yet).  Those of you who don’t have these same issues should take the chance to participate tomorrow.

Motorists face more roadblocks in future

O Canada!  Paul Berton of the London Free Press (Ontario, not England) discusses some of the ways that the cities of our neighbor to the North are ahead of the curve.  He reports that Toronto is planning on restricting right turns on red lights.  As a pedestrian who has been hit by a right-turning car, I can tell you, this would make a huge difference in pedestrian and bicyclist safety.  Vancouver is adding new bike lanes.  Berton goes on to predict the downfall of the car and the rise of New Urbanism.  We can only hope he is right.