Former Associate editor Margret Aldrich on the hunt for happiness, community, and how humans thrive
Wednesday, March 14, 2012 3:20 PM
The bike lanes and pathways of Minneapolis are a local source of pride, and rightly so. The city’s majestic 50.4-mile Grand Rounds pathway system connects countless neighborhoods together in a cohesive, reliable network that’s as user-friendly as it is beautiful. In 2010, Bicycling magazine named Minneapolis the #1 Bike City in the U.S., citing innovations the city’s bikes-and-peds-only below-ground Greenway through the center of town. But most important in the decision was the biking culture that goes along with innovations like that: the bicycling couriers, the dozens of bike shops, the relentless winter commuting. In places like Minneapolis, cycling is not just a hobby or subculture—it’s a legitimate alternative for getting around, on par with public transit or driving.
But like other bike-friendly cities, Minneapolis owes a lot to federal investment in cycling infrastructure. And that investment looks perilously insecure.
Last month, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee voted to eliminate federal funding for bicycling projects and infrastructure. As PRI reports, last year, federal support amounted to $1.2 billion—less than 2 percent of all transportation spending—that went toward projects like the Safe Routes to School program as well as Complete Streets initiatives aimed at maintaining safe spaces for bikes and pedestrians on roadways. In the House Committee version, all of this would have been taken out. To the relief of many, a Senate version introduced early in March restored this funding, and it is likely to pass this week. The close call served as a reminder of how important federal dollars are in maintaining and expanding cycling options for city dwellers—and how much Washington’s spending priorities have recently shifted.
For the past 20 years, federal support for bicycling infrastructure has steadily gone up. As Urbanland points out, biking in any major U.S. city wasn’t so easy before 1991 when Congress (and then-President George Bush Sr.) earmarked federal dollars for cycling infrastructure for the first time. The bill allotted less than 2 percent of federal transportation funding to expand bicycle infrastructure, but that was enough to completely reshape the look and feel of many cities like Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon (another recent #1 Bike City winner). And as The Nation reports, on the grassroots side, the Complete Street Movement has been advocating safer and more expansive bike routes for years. Governors in a number of states have approved their proposals, including Minnesota, and Complete Street language has found its way into federal legislation. In 2005 Minneapolis was also the recipient—along with Sheboygan County, WI; Marin County, CA; and Columbia, MO—of a $25 million federal grant for a pilot program to further development biking and walking paths over 10 years.
The multi-city grant will not be affected by whatever happens in the House and Senate this month, but funding in other parts of the country is less secure. This year is a critical one for transportation funding, as benchmark legislation enacted in 2003 is set to expire soon. And unfortunately for cyclists, it’s also a big year for fiscal conservatism. As Huffington reports, The February House bill was only the latest in a series of barebones transportation proposals that have sent biking infrastructure to the chopping block. Fully three transportation bills introduced last fall would have cut or eliminated funding for cycling projects, the latest a proposal by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in November. At issue is whether states can afford to set aside money for these initiatives, when so much of our nation’s (cars-only) infrastructure is in disrepair. Misunderstandings are also rife, says Huffington’s Joan Lowy: in defending his legislation, Paul said that states’ priorities should not be focused on “beautification,” which apparently includes things like bike safety projects.
Paul’s attitude about urban cycling may be a harbinger of a changing dynamic in Washington, one that sees government spending on almost anything as suspect. While much can change over the next five months, right now it seems like the G.O.P. will likely retain the House, and even have a decent shot at the Senate, according to The Hill. Should this happen, transportation policy could look very different this time next year.
But urban cyclists are nothing if not committed. Already, three-time Cyclocross champion Tim Johnson has begun a 520-mile trek from Boston to the National Bike Summit in Washington, D.C., scheduled for later this month. The trip and the summit are meant to raise funds and awareness on bike politics and safety, reports Slowtwitch. The Summit also aims to push Congress toward action on the Senate bill, which may stall due to lack of support in the House, says Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists. Whether that happens will depend on whether cycling enthusiasts can muster enough of a presence in Washington later this month, writes Clarke in the League’s blog.
For years, funding for cycling infrastructure has been more or less below the mainstream radar. It is, after all, a tiny percentage of federal transportation spending, and bikers themselves are a growing, but still small, group of people. But as gas prices approach potential record highs this summer, cycling may enter the national conversation in a bigger way. Whether we can repeat success stories like Minneapolis and Portland may have a lot to do with what happens this year.
Sources: Bicycling Magazine, PRI, Urbanland, The Nation, Bike Walk Twin Cities, Huffington, The Hill, Slowtwitch, League of American Bicyclists, NPR.
Image by jglsongs, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, February 21, 2012 3:42 PM
What would it take to shape a planet on which people, other living things, and the systems that support us can sustainably coexist? For a special issue,
magazine invited experts from around the world to share their thoughts on how we might craft solutions to some of earth’s toughest challenges. Ben Jervey spoke with physicist Robert Socolow on what it would take to rein in greenhouse gas emissions and solve climate change.
What would it take to rein in greenhouse gas emissions and solve climate change?
The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is about 40 percent higher today than it was 200 years ago. It’s going up principally because we are burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) and secondarily because we are cutting down forests. Fossil fuel energy represents 85 percent of the energy powering the world economy, and exchanging the current fossil fuel energy system for a low-carbon energy system won’t happen overnight. It could require a century or more if we fail to take climate change seriously. The current fossil energy system is a very strong competitor to any low-carbon energy system we will invent.
With all the talk about peak oil, it’s not surprising that people imagine that the fossil fuel era will come to an end soon, because we run out of fossil fuels. That’s not going to happen. What we will run out of is low-cost oil. But there are a lot of buried hydrocarbons in the form of lower quality reserves (coal, shale gas, shale oil, oil sands and others) that will keep the fossil energy system humming. So we are in a pickle. We will need policies that modify the current competition between high-carbon and low-carbon energy in favor of the latter. We will also need success in research, development, and deployment that lowers the cost of low-carbon energy.
You’ve expressed concerns about the current discussions of long-term climate targets.
The world’s diplomats and environmentalists have nearly universally endorsed a target that is extremely difficult to achieve. A consensus could develop—possibly quite soon—that the very difficult goal will not be attained. It would be desirable to prepare now to discuss some relatively less difficult goal that nonetheless requires, starting immediately, major national commitments and international coordination. We will greatly increase the likely damage from climate change if not achieving the current extremely difficult goal disheartens us and we respond by postponing action for decades.
What is this “extremely difficult” goal?
The extremely difficult global target is known as “preventing 2 degrees.” Let me decode this. To prevent 2 degrees, those alive today and our successors must keep the Earth’s average surface temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), relative to the value of the same temperature before the Industrial Revolution. Achieving the “2 degrees” target requires the termination of the fossil fuel era in just a few decades. Indeed, “2 degrees” is now widely acknowledged to be shorthand for cutting today’s global carbon dioxide emissions rate in half by 2050.
An alternative target is “3 degrees,” which is shorthand for allowing the global emissions rate for greenhouse gases at mid-century to be approximately equal to today’s rate. The fossil fuel system would be greatly constrained relative to where global economic growth is taking it. Large deployment of energy efficiency and low-carbon technology would take place during the decades immediately ahead to facilitate the steady curtailment of fossil fuels. But there would still be substantial coal, oil and natural gas in the global energy system at mid-century.
Not to constrain the global fossil fuel system at all over the next few decades could be called “5 degrees.” It is the only outcome currently contrasted with “2 degrees” in most discussions of climate change policy. “Three degrees” is the middle option, permitting somewhat greater flexibility and caution, but nonetheless requiring immense effort. We should be using the current period to work out the details of the middle option and keep it in play.
Climate scientists such as James Hansen have written that a concentration of 350 parts per million (ppm) carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the “safe upper limit.” There’s a whole organization developed around that number (www.350.org). How do these temperature targets correspond to concentration targets?
Indeed, following the current discussion about targets is a daunting task for the nonspecialist. There is a third way of expressing a climate change target: neither a cap on ultimate surface temperature nor a cap on emissions at mid-century, but a cap on the ultimate concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Out of every million molecules in the atmosphere right now, 390 are carbon dioxide molecules. We say that the concentration is 390 ppm, or 390 parts per million. In Shakespeare’s time, the concentration was 280 ppm. 350.org is advocating a concentration lower than the present one, setting an agenda for the next century or longer. I think any goal that far out takes our eye off the ball. Our focus needs to be on how quickly we shut down the fossil fuel system over the next few decades, a period when the concentration of carbon dioxide is nearly certain to be rising.
You seem concerned that we could implement warming mitigation strategies too quickly.
The “2 degrees” target emerged from well-meaning but one-sided reasoning. To be sure, the faster emissions of greenhouse gases are reduced, the smaller will be the disruptions from climate change—the less the severity of storms and droughts, the less the increase in sea level, the less the acidification of the oceans, the less the damage to ecosystems. “Two degrees” was the answer to the question: What temperature rise would occur if the fossil energy system were shut down at the fastest conceivable rate? A two-sided analysis would take into account the disruptions that come from closing down the fossil fuel system quickly.
One reason we need two-sided analysis is that climate change is linked to nuclear war. A rapid global expansion of nuclear power is a step toward avoiding climate change, but it also can encourage the development of nuclear weapons.
My generation considered our greatest assignment to be avoiding nuclear war. The horror of nuclear war is less on people’s minds today, but nuclear weapons are still seen as desirable in many countries. The more worried anyone is about climate change, the more he or she should be working to develop the international institutions that can prevent the diversion into nuclear weapons of the uranium and plutonium associated with nuclear power. It would be terrible to exchange climate change for nuclear war anywhere on the planet.
Besides nuclear proliferation, do you have other concerns that keep you from endorsing the quickest possible move away from fossil fuels?
Yes, I do. An uncritical espousal of the fastest possible renunciation of fossil fuels is also irresponsible from the perspective of industrialization in the developing world. Fossil fuels are currently powering this industrialization, and plans for the decades ahead assume that the dominance of fossil fuels will continue. An alternative is low-carbon industrialization in various forms. Yet, very little detailed analysis has been done to understand what would be necessary to make low-carbon industrialization attractive.
To understand why such analysis is critical, note that today roughly half of the world’s emissions come from industrialized countries and half from developing countries. To meet the goal of cutting global emissions in half by midcentury, even if industrialized country emissions were to go nearly to zero, total emissions from developing countries would need to fall relative to today. By contrast, emissions of greenhouse gases from the developing world have roughly doubled in the past 20 years. Low-carbon industrialization for sure will require much innovation.
Do you have specific innovations in mind for the developing world?
Above all, developing countries undergoing rapid industrialization need to make energy efficiency a priority. Neighborhoods containing blocks of apartment buildings for hundreds of millions of people are being built today, equipped with hundreds of millions of household appliances. To service these neighborhoods, new roads and new grids for electricity, natural gas and water are being provided. Unfortunately, most of this development repeats mistakes made earlier by industrialized countries. First costs rather than life-cycle costs drive investments. Measurements of actual usage of power and fuel are rare, even though such measurements would permit energy-savings strategies to be evaluated and made more effective.
Aren’t you violating a taboo when you talk about the responsibilities of developing countries?
As someone from an industrialized country, I do indeed find it awkward to lecture counterparts in developing countries about their patterns of development. In effect, I am saying: “Don’t do what we did.”
I advocate fixing the bad habits in industrialized countries and limiting their adoption in developing countries. “Developed” countries can and should pursue energy efficiency much more aggressively—addressing our own poorly insulated homes, low-mileage vehicles, and inefficient refrigerators, computers, televisions and air conditioners. We can and should establish land use policies that reduce sprawl and long commutes.
To sum up, what would you recommend for an overall climate change strategy?
We will know more about climate change in a decade or two, and we will also know more about the societal stresses incurred by aggressive climate change mitigation. It is all too easy to imagine outcomes of addressing climate change that bring societal disruptions as severe as climate change itself. I am confident that preventing such outcomes is achievable. But right now there is too much willingness to pretend that such outcomes don’t exist.
I recommend, first, the coordinated development of ambitious emissions targets and emission-reduction strategies required to meet these targets. Second, at regular intervals, in accordance with the principle known as iterative risk management, both the targets and the strategies would be revisited and revised in the light of new information and insights.
Published in association with
, a print, online and multimedia magazine for environmental thought leaders produced by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.
Image courtesy of Princeton University.
Wednesday, February 15, 2012 11:17 AM
What would it take to shape a planet on which people, other living things, and the systems that support us can sustainably coexist? For a special issue,
magazine invited experts from around the world to share their thoughts on how we might craft solutions to some of earth’s toughest challenges. Jeremy Faludi spoke with optimist Alex Steffen about what it would take to make a city carbon neutral.
First, let’s talk about transportation. What are your favorite tools or strategies that cities can use?
Well, one thing I’ve learned that’s really shocked me is the degree to which transportation planning in the U.S. is really traffic planning. Even progressive cities like Seattle have a sub-department that is about everything else but cars. They don’t have any integrated strategy at all. The traffic modeling software used by the planning commission for the five-county metropolitan area here doesn’t even account for pedestrian trips or bicycle trips, and only does a one-to-one swap for transit and cars, which we know isn’t the way the real world works.
If we’re talking about transportation, the best thing a city can do is densify as quickly as it can. That needs to be said every time this issue comes up, because it’s the only universal strategy that works. That’s the best-documented finding in urban planning—that as density goes up, trip length goes down and transportation energy use goes down. The main question that nearly every city in North America needs to address is how to densify quickly. Once people are grappling with that, though, there are other things people need to do to make that work: making neighborhoods walkable, with green spaces, street life, mixed-use zoning and other qualities that make a place livable. If you have density without that, you just have vertical suburbs.
How you get density is different depending on whether your city is growing or declining. Most cities in the U.S. are growing because the country is having one last population boom. The biggest thing growing cities need to do is minimize barriers to development so that as long as someone is doing good urbanism, they can get permitted quickly and get building quickly. In a lot of places, one of the most expensive parts of building a new building is the delay caused by permitting, public process, etc. Places that have done a really good job, like Vancouver, basically set a high bar for what will get passed, but once you’ve passed you’re good to go, there aren’t delays. I think that’s one of the most important things, because we know there’s already a giant pent-up demand for urban living space. We want to provide that urban living space—but that requires building on a scale we haven't seen in 40 or 50 years.
What are the best strategies to fill cities with carbon-neutral buildings?
In most places, the process of land use planning and infrastructure planning is broken—even if it’s working well in most ways, it’s broken in the slowness with which it grapples with change. In quite a few cities, most civic engagement is mostly a matter of fighting development, people saying, “not in my backyard.” Even in cities that are doing good planning, it tends to be marginal and incremental and take decades to come to fruition. There are a number of cities that have fast-track permitting for green buildings.
Vancouver has explicit policies about setting ambitious policy goals and strict building standards, but then really expediting any projects that exceed it. A lot of cities will need to embrace that. We have a lot more to lose by changing too slowly than by changing too quickly. We know enough about how to legislate good urban design that there’s no excuse for not picking up the pace.
I think people are frustrated because all these things are such large-scale issues that people feel they can only be solved through complicated bureaucratic processes of city governments, which have glacial paces. What can we do about that?
One of the most unfortunate side effects of the urban activism of the ’60s and ’70s is the belief that development is wrong and that fighting it makes you an environmentalist. We know that dense cities are both environmentally better and dramatically more equitable places. Walkable neighborhoods are better than the suburbs for people with a wide range of incomes, and what happens in cities that don't grow is that they gentrify and poor people are pushed out. Trying to fight change makes you less sustainable and more unfair.
I think we need to acknowledge that not everyone will be happy with the results. But you need to be able to charge ahead anyway. I really admire Janette Sadik-Khan, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation. One of the things she’s great at is that when there’s an idea that’s understood to be workable and good because it’s worked elsewhere, and with the amount of basic vetting needed to show it won’t have unintended consequences, she goes ahead. She just makes changes, rather than submitting things to lengthy process. The most famous thing she did was Times Square, making it a pedestrian plaza. She didn’t put it through a five-year plan, she just did it. Same thing with a ton of bike lanes, bus rapid transit, etc. She doesn’t get bogged down in debate about things. We need more leadership like that. She’s had opposition—some people haven’t liked what she’s done. But most people really do like it, because it works.
In almost all city governments in America, the small group of people who don’t want change are able to block change. Sometimes these people block change for good reasons, but much of the changes we need, that will improve cities, also get blocked—which is a loss for everyone involved.
How do you streamline the hearing process but still allow people’s voices to be heard? For instance, when the big-box store wants to move in that would kill local businesses, how do people have recourse against that?
My experience is that, in most cities, the planning process isn’t used primarily to block things like that. It’s used primarily to block things like extensions of transit, affordable housing, large residential projects, etc. There are bad projects, and people have every right and duty to block them, but most NIMBY opposition isn’t to stuff that’s actually bad, it’s just to stuff people don’t like because it’s different. And I don’t think the public has a duty to listen to the same arguments again and again and again. I think once officials are elected who have a clearly articulated agenda, they should just go do them. There are converging approaches that are designed to involve more people in the process, change the process itself. Some of this is in the Government 2.0 movement of better data transparency; some of this is in open-source planning, etc. Most of the process in most cities I’m aware of is de facto exclusionary because you can’t participate unless you can take time off in the middle of your workday to go to the hearings. So you end up with wealthy NIMBYs, public officials and developers, which isn’t a very good mix. Putting pressure to change those systems, for civic revival, would greatly help.
So you’re arguing not for shutting down public hearing process, but for letting cities decide on projects by whole classes of projects rather than individual cases?
Yes, exactly. You don’t get the pace of change that’s needed out of case-by-case evaluations. If you’re willing to make tough choices right up front, we know it’s possible to do a lot of this stuff without taking away anything that people love about their cities. In fact, we can add value to people's neighborhoods.
There’s a great plan for the city of Melbourne, which they presented at TEDx Sydney. The city’s growing quickly, needs to add a million people over the next decade or two, but they don’t want that to be sprawl. So they took a digital map of the city and blocked off everything that’s currently single-family residences, everything that’s a historical building, everything that’s green space, working industrial land, and other things people are vociferous about valuing. That left a fairly small percentage of land. But they showed that if they concentrated density in those corridors, they could add a million people without expanding the city at all, and it would add all these benefits, like better public transit and such. You can dramatically increase the density of places without taking away things people want—and actually adding things they want but couldn’t afford today—because the average suburb isn’t dense enough to financially support a tram or the like. But if you add a dense core that can support that, suddenly even the people around it, in their single-family homes, get the benefit, too. I call that “tent-pole density,” where extremely high density in a small area brings up the average for a whole neighborhood, even when the rest of the neighborhood doesn’t change. I think it’s a really important concept, one that most people don’t get.
We’ve run out of time for incremental approaches. For carbon-neutral cities, there are things worth talking about in how our consumption patterns can change—sharing goods, etc.—but those are a fraction of the impacts of transportation and building energy use. If we need to choose priority actions, the most important things are to densify, provide transit, and green the buildings.
Published in association with
, a print, online and multimedia magazine for environmental thought leaders produced by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.
Image by Mikael Colville-Anderson / Copenhagenize.com.
Friday, July 29, 2011 4:08 PM
In New York City, an intense battle over new bike lanes has erupted into a fierce cultural war. But New York Press reminds us that this isn’t the first time a new mode of transportation has opened a schism in the city’s social fabric. Aaron Napartek, who founded the bike advocacy site Streetsblog, writes:
The tabloid ravings, harsh police tactics and political posturing aimed against bikes and bike lanes may seem intense today. In a historic context, however, the Bike Backlash of 2011 is nothing compared to the battle that took place during the decade after World War I when organized “motordom” carved out its place on New York City streets. …
University of Virginia professor Peter Norton details the early history of the car and the city in his wonky but fascinating book, Fighting Traffic. He describes the “blood, grief and anger in the American city” and the “violent revolution in the streets” of New York and other U.S. cities as automobile owners bullied their way on to city streets, literally leaving a trail of mangled children’s bodies in their wake.
In the 1920s, motor vehicle crashes killed more than 200,000 Americans, a staggering number considering how many fewer cars actually existed in those days. These days, 35,000 or so Americans are killed in car wrecks annually. Most of the dead are drivers and passengers on highways and in rural places. In the 1920s, most of the dead were kids living in cities. In the first four years after the Armistice of World War I, more Americans were killed in car wrecks than had died in battle in France.
Some critics of the time called the automobile “a pagan idol demanding sacrifice,” according to Norton, and street mobs sometimes set upon reckless motorists who’d hit pedestrians.
Now, the body count in today’s bike lane wars is admittedly no comparison. But the tenor of the rhetoric is often just as shrill. “Bike lanes have gone from simple strips of pavement festooned with green and white paint to sponges for a sea of latent cultural and economic anxieties,” writes New York magazine in a dispatch from the front lines, “Is New York too New York for bike lanes?”
Naparstek is ultimately hopeful about the outcome in Gotham: “Minds will change and the Great Bike Backlash will soon come to an end. … We’re just waiting for the culture to catch up to the infrastructure.”
UPDATE 8/9/2011: A new poll shows two out of three New Yorkers support the new bike lanes, the New York Observer reports—but only 27 percent believe more lanes should be added.
Source: New York Press, Streetsblog, New York, New York Observer
, licensed under
Wednesday, March 09, 2011 1:01 PM
A common criticism of electric cars is that they’ve simply got “long tailpipes”—that is, they still pollute, albeit at the power plant where their power is generated rather than at the auto itself. But this critique ultimately doesn’t hold much air, our sister publication Mother Earth News has found after crunching the numbers on electric car emissions:
In terms of climate change emissions, electric cars are generally much cleaner than conventional gas vehicles. In areas of the country that have the cleanest power generation (more wind, solar and hydropower), electric cars emit far less greenhouse gases, not only compared with conventional vehicles, but also compared with efficient hybrid-electric vehicles. In areas of the country with the dirtiest power generation (coal), an efficient hybrid may be your best environmental bet, though if you’re gentle on the pedal, an electric car may yield comparable results. On a national average basis, an efficient electric car emits about half the amount of carbon dioxide as a conventional car, and roughly the same amount as an efficient hybrid.
Read the full article to learn about all the factors that determine auto efficiency and emissions, and see the accompanying U.S. map of electric car CO2 emissions by region to get a sense of how your area stacks up.
The next time you hear the long-tailpipe argument, you’ll know enough to challenge this bit of common nonsense.
Source: Mother Earth News
Image by frankh, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, November 12, 2010 11:27 AM
The recent U.S. election was discouraging in general for green transportation advocates, but one loss I felt particularly keenly was the unseating of Minnesota Democratic congressman James Oberstar by a slim margin. For as Carolyn Szczepanski writes on her blog People Powered Transportation at Mother Earth News:
If you don’t live in Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District or follow federal transportation policy, you probably don’t even know the name James Oberstar. He was elected to Congress in 1974, and, since his very first term, served on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
For bike-ped advocates, those committee members are critical and, for three decades, Oberstar pushed to get bicyclists and pedestrians recognized and treated as “intended users” of our public roads. In the last wave election in 2006, when Democrats took control of the House, Oberstar was elected chairman of the Transportation Committee. A few months after he claimed leadership, he told a crowd at the National Bike Summit: “We’re going to convert America from the hydrocarbon economy to the carbohydrate economy.”
Oberstar was vested in many transit issues, as Minnesota Public Radio reports, but it was clear that biking was close to his heart, and he was responsible for directing funding to many bike trails in the nation and the state. He was in some ways a classic pork-barrel politician, but he served up an awful lot of tasty pork to bicyclists. I’ve ridden many miles on Oberstar-funded trails, including the Lakewalk along Duluth’s Lake Superior waterfront—and so, I imagine, have many of the people who voted red over blue this time around.
Washington, D.C.’s Streetsblog reports that now that Oberstar is out of the picture, Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, a “coal-n-highways Dem,” may be angling for the top Democratic seat on the Transportation Committee. (The silver lining: This would take Rahall and his pro-coal agenda off the Natural Resources Committee.)
Oberstar is a savvy guy. He probably knows that he didn’t get voted out because people suddenly hate bike trails, but because the soft, doughy, pliable middle of the electorate simply swung in the other direction this time. Maybe they need to get out and bike a bit more.
Sources: Mother Earth News, Minnesota Public Radio News, Streetsblog Capitol Hill
Image of Rep. James Oberstar by John Schadl, courtesy of the photographer.
Monday, August 02, 2010 6:18 PM
In the latest issue of The Brooklyn Rail, Dave Kim talks to Michael Sorkin, “laurelled architect and urban design theorist,” who is head creative on the NYC team of Our Cities Ourselves. OCC, a program of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, pairs architecture firms with global cities (expected to double in population by 2030) to form master plans for the future of transportation and urban well-being.
Sorkin is all spitfire, and I love it: Unapologetic and undaunted, he has a vision for New York City that includes shutting down a major portion of FDR Drive. “Sorkin doesn’t budge when I ask him if his project will adapt to [the city’s existing plans to expand FDR],” Kim writes. “ ‘We’re not trying to increase traffic,’ he says. ‘We’re looking to frustrate it. But we are doing so in favor of something less dangerous, less polluting, and less selfish.’ ”
Source: The Brooklyn Rail
Image by SpecialKRB, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, July 28, 2010 5:15 PM
You may have seen or heard tales of cargo bikes, the specialized pedal-powered machines that can haul much more than your average bike. Perhaps you’ve spotted one loading up with groceries at the co-op or tooling around town with some kids on the back, or maybe you’ve come across one of the many YouTube videos or Flickr pics of plucky riders hauling large and unwieldy items on their sturdy rides.
Over at the Pacific Northwest alt-news outlet Sightline Daily, Alan Durning recently posted an impressively thorough rundown of these “human powered pickup trucks,” which range from pretty conventional bikes with extended and beefed-up back ends—like the Utne Reader’s new Surly Big Dummy, pictured above—to more farfetched designs with monikers such as longjohns, box bikes, and cargo trikes. Durning’s article covers custom-designed bikes for carrying specialized loads from beer kegs to mail to soup, and includes great shots of folks lugging screen doors, flower seedlings, and, on moving day, what appears to be all their worldly possessions. He writes:
What’s clear from all the inventing and tinkering and experimenting in cargo bikes is that we’ve yet to reach the limits of muscle-powered urban transportation.
I doubt that cargo bikes will ever amount to a substantial share of freight hauling even in cities. The motor is an amazing technology, and hauling large loads is where it makes most sense.
Still, cargo bikes seem destined to fill a small but growing niche in our communities. Unlike electric bikes, they fit perfectly into North America’s existing bike culture (macho, anti-auto, lighthearted). They extend options for car-less and car-lite businesses and families. …
As our neighborhoods grow more compact, mixed, and bike-friendly, and when we put a price on carbon, cargo bikes are likely to grow steadily in numbers and uses. They are likely, in fact, to become commonplace—symbols and reminders of how human power and human ingenuity are chipping away at an unreliable, climate-changing, and ocean-endangering petroleum supply.
Here at Utne Reader, we’re proud to be part of the trend with our new staff Big Dummy. We intend to take it out to events such as concerts, film festivals, and book fairs, bearing Utne Readers and conversation, and put it to work hauling everything from burritos to the giant stacks of books and magazines that we plow through. I’m not sure we’ll change the world, but we’ll save a little gas, get some fresh air, and tone our thighs nicely.
Maybe we can even reach out across partisan lines and give Rush Limbaugh a lift somewhere.
Source: Sightline Daily
Friday, July 16, 2010 4:00 PM
The Tour de Fat is rolling across the Western United States, bringing bikes, beer, and carnivalesque frivolity to more than a dozen cities. Sponsored by Colorado craft brewer New Belgium, the event raises thousands of dollars for local bike groups in each location through brew and merchandise sales, all the while allowing local bikers to get their inner freak on.
The riders who show up for the kickoff event, the Tour de Fat bicycle parade, are a wildly eclectic bunch: Geeky vintage bike collectors pedal alongside BMX tricksters and attention-getting body-mod and tattoo fetishists. Tinkerers show off their tall bikes and crazy modifications; single-speeders flaunt their stripped-down rigs; and cargo bikers—such as me, riding the Utne Reader’s new Surly Big Dummy—flex their load-bearing capacity.
I made the rounds at the Minneapolis Tour de Fat before the parade started, asking bikers with notable rides to tell me a bit about them, while Utne Reader art director Stephanie Glaros took photos. (Look for more of her shots soon on Utne’s Tumblr blog.) Here are the fascinating folks we met:
Mark Lukens, Minneapolis
Double-decker BMX bike
BMX biking is literally imprinted on Mark Lukens: Google “BMX tattoos” and an image of the handlebars stretching across his chest will turn up at the top of your results. A welder, he made two bikes into one:
“This is a mid-’90s Wilkerson Airline on the bottom, with a late ’90s Powerlite freestyle frame on the top. I saw other people with tall bikes, and what I do is BMX, so I went with it. Stunts allowed are wheelies, and wheelies only. I Frankensteined together the front steer tube, so there’s no bar spins anymore.”
Bill Eggert, St. Paul
Eggert calls his contraption the Evolutionary Transport, or ET for short—and he’s got a patent pending, so don’t even think of ripping off this idea:
“It’s kind of like an elliptical trainer that moves or a cross-country ski machine that moves. I’m a former long-distance runner with some injuries and was looking for a low-impact way to exercise outside that was still weight-bearing and used arms and legs. I can get a really good workout in a shorter period of time, plus, it’s green. You can run errands on this. I have a big basket on it, and I can take it to the grocery store. A whole bunch of people in health clubs ride elliptical trainers, but they always complain about being stuck inside. I’ve got a patent pending on this, and am getting closer. This is just one of several prototypes: different wheelbases, different wheel sizes. I have a winter version with a Pugsley tire on the rear end. I’m finalizing design issues, and I may be flying to Taiwan early this fall to find a manufacturer.”
Brad Wilcox and Juliann Wilcox, Lindstrom, Minnesota
The Wilcoxes have their own fleet of vintage bicycles—more than a half-dozen at last count, and growing all the time:
Brad: “This is a Swedish-built Monarch, and it’s a delivery bike. It’s very common. We live up in a Swedish community, and we have a lot of Swede tourists. A guy stopped by last summer, and he said, ‘I rode one of these delivering for a local hardware store in Sweden.’ I found this one locally, in an antique store in Minneapolis. I believe someone left it as a garden bike for a while. I cleaned it up as good as I could, but it’s an excellent, very well-built bike. It rides very well. Hopefully the tires won’t blow out, because they’re still the original tires. My wife found it, and I have a bunch of Monarchs, the U.S. built ones, so I thought it fit with the collection. Mainly I ride it around the little town we live in, and people look at me like I’m from outer space. ‘There’s the guy with the rack on the front.’ I paid enough for it, I’m sure. It was one of those deals where I had to have it at the time.”
Juliann: “This is a Columbia with a laser horn. (She pushes a button on the side of the futuristic top bar, emitting a sharp electric skronk.) That’s what I call it. I laser people out when I’m biking by. I wanted a red bike today since it went with my outfit.”
Brad: “The [Columbia] bike was my brother’s pride and joy, but he moved to Florida and it wouldn’t fit in the U-Haul. He said, ‘Would you take it?’ I said, ‘Oh, I think I’ll take it.”
Juliann: “I bought a bike yesterday saw another one, but I couldn’t fit it in the car. We could only get one in.”
Brad: “Bikes are cheaper than drugs, and they last longer. I think they’re cheaper, anyway.”
Elyce Gibson and Brad Ash, Minneapolis
Schwinn Jenny and unidentifiable black mountain bike
Gibson and Ash recently relocated from Washington, D.C., to Minneapolis—lucky for them, since it allowed them to ride in the Tour de Fat and show off Elyce’s brand-new but classic-looking Schwinn Jenny:
Elyce: “I just got this bike, and I’ve been riding it every day since. I like the color, the shape, and that it’s a seven-speed but looks vintage. I looked all over in shops for a bike but then found this on the Schwinn website and had it special ordered by a bike shop.”
Brad: “This has a beautifully speckled rust paint job. I’ve even gotten compliments on it, but it’s not intentional. It doesn’t have any original parts—this is a Frankenstein bike. It has personality, and it works well. Well, maybe not all of the time. About three months ago part of the handlebar broke off while I was riding.”
All images by Stephanie Glaros.
Thursday, July 08, 2010 1:52 PM
The average car tire is roughly one part natural rubber (thank you, rubber tree) and four parts synthetic material (thank you, petroleum industry). It turns out you just can’t make a good tire without at least a little bit of the real thing thrown in there—and while rubber trees aren’t exactly a finite resource, chopping them down takes the form of clear cutting rainforest and they are slow to grow back.
Enter the lowly dandelion. It turns out that one species of the weed, Taraxacum kok-saghyz (TKS), produces rubber molecules. Conservation Magazine reports that scientists in Germany “have identified the genes that allow TKS to produce usable rubber.”
Meanwhile, Matthew Kleinhenz of Ohio State University is working on increasing the yield of rubber from TKS. Kleinhenz is doing things the old-fashioned way, growing different strains of TKS, grinding up the roots (where sap is found) to see which have the highest rubber content, and cross-breeding the winners. His aim is to create a plant that is high-yielding and has roots chunky enough to be harvested mechanically.
Combining the two approaches—high-tech bioengineering and low-tech plant breeding—may produce a whole new crop species. It would also mark a step on a journey that some see as the way forward: a return to the use of plant-based products that have been overshadowed by the availability of cheap oil.
I can’t help myself—this effort needs a theme song…
Source: Conservation Magazine
Image by jurvetson, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, June 18, 2010 4:45 PM
A happy little piece of transportation fodder to end the day: The above poster, from the Press Office of the City of Münster, Germany (circa 2001), shows the amount of space required to transport the same number of people by car, bus, or bike.
Wednesday, January 13, 2010 3:08 PM
Electric vehicles are coming to the United States. If steps aren’t taken, though, the cars could cause blackouts and may not help the environment as much as promised. The new EVs need a lot of power to charge, and people want their cars to charge quickly. Turning on just one EV charger "is like adding three new homes to a neighborhood," according to IEEE Spectrum, "and that’s with the air conditioning, lights, and laundry running." If there were an influx of new EV cars, it would put a massive strain on the power grid—especially street-level transformers—and could cause blackouts.
And where does the energy come from to power all those cars? About half of electricity in the United States currently comes from coal power, and that won’t likely change with the introduction of the new cars. So unless big changes are made soon, the new EVs won’t be all that green.
Source: IEEE Spectrum
Friday, August 29, 2008 4:07 PM
A newly developed piece of clothing called the Speed Vest is giving bicycle safety some much-needed visibility.
The reflective vest displays its wearer’s speed in bright neon numbers on the back, increasing the rider’s visibility while addressing the common complaint that bikes slow car traffic. Automobile drivers’ impatience might be mitigated if the Speed Vest confirms that the bike in front of them is traveling at or near the car’s speed.
The Speed Vest is still in the prototype stage, but its designers—Brady Clark, of Minneapolis, and Mykle Hansen, of Portland, Oregon—have already won the Bike Gadget Contest held by the Hub Bike Co-Op in Minneapolis and showcased their invention at the Minnesota State Fair this summer. The bike blog Urban Velo has some playful suggestions for alternative messages bicyclists could convey via the Speed Vest.
Image by Nathaniel Freeman, courtesy of Speed Vest.
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