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Emily Badger's Posts

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America’s cities are still too afraid to make driving unappealing

bikes-transit.jpg
Dylan Passmore

The morning I wrote this I took public transportation to work. I hopped on the bus around the corner from my house, then the train for a few stops farther. I took mass transit because it was convenient, because my card was already preloaded with the cash that diverts from my paycheck, and because the ride gave me 20 minutes to start the day browsing Twitter.

Baked into this decision, however, were a number of other nearly subliminal calculations about the alternatives not taken. I did not drive the car (yes, my household has a car) because downtown Washington, D.C., is a hot mess at rush hour, and because parking near the office costs the equivalent of a fancy hamburger a day. I did not bike because it was snowing. (Again.) And I did not walk because the distance was too far.

My commuting choices -- just like everyone's -- are the sum of the advantages of one transportation mode weighed against the downsides of all other options. Or, more succinctly: My feelings about the bus are mediated by what I'm thinking about my car.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy

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How much power do cities really have to combat climate change?

new york
Joseph Holmes

C40 Cities, Michael Bloomberg's coalition of global mayors trying to tackle climate change on their own, reported Wednesday that their progress is accelerating. Five-dozen of the world's biggest cities (the group actually has more than 40 members) have nearly doubled the number of programs and initiatives they're implementing to adapt to climate change or reduce emissions in the last two years. Among the group, they've now got 36 bikeshare systems. Fifty-two cities are planning to phase in LED streetlights. Another 35 are working on BRT.

Fifty-eight out of 59 municipalities that participated in a mammoth status report out today at C40's biannual meeting declared that climate change poses significant risk to their cities (the lone dissenter isn't named). And that, points out C40 research director Seth Schultz, is a refreshing level of agreement on the topic (although maybe it's not that surprising coming from mayors who want to be in a group devoted to climate change in the first place).

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy

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The U.S. cities leading the decline in driving

Austin, Texas.
Shutterstock
Austin, Texas.

One of the simplest ways to measure our dependence on cars is to look at the share of commuters in a given city who get to work in a private vehicle. These are the people who rely on automobiles as part of their everyday travel patterns. They're people who live too far from work to walk there, who may prefer not to take transit, or who simply have no other options. They're the commuters for whom communities must widen highways for rush-hour capacity and build out parking garages for downtown businesses.

Over the last decade, however, a new report from the U.S. PIRG Education Fund and the Frontier Group finds that the share of workers who get to work by private car declined in 99 of America's 100 largest urbanized areas (by the Census Bureau's definition, this is a densely populated geography often larger than a single city but smaller than a metropolitan area). The lone outlier was New Orleans, which has been an outlier in many ways since Hurricane Katrina.

Benjamin Davis and Phineas Baxandall calculated this using "journey to work" data from the 2007-2011 American Community Survey, comparing it to the year 2000. The results suggest that the biggest declines in car commuters have come in the New York-Newark area; Washington, D.C.; Austin, Texas; and Poughkeepsie-Newburgh, N.Y. In all four urban areas, the share of workers commuting by private vehicle has dropped by 4 percent or more:

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Why the government now cares what you spend on gas

housing affordability
location.info

The housing crisis was, of course, primarily about housing: housing that people couldn't afford, housing that banks helped them finance anyway, housing that too many treated as a sure-fire investment.

But in a less noticed way, the housing crisis was also very much about transportation. The money we spend getting around is largely dictated by the choices we make in where to live. Buy a house 20 miles down the highway from your job, and your costs of getting around on $4-a-gallon gas are much steeper than they would be if you lived a short walk from the office (or the bus stop).

Those costs -- half a tank of gas here, a bus ticket there -- are much harder to track than a single monthly housing payment. They're practically invisible. That $2,000 a month mortgage on a spacious suburban colonial? It may also cost you $100 a week in gas money. Which is just the kind of unanticipated financial burden that can break a family budget.

So how do you make the intertwined costs and tradeoffs of housing and transportation more obvious? The Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago has been trying to do this for several years with its Housing + Transportation Affordability Index. And, as we've previously mentioned, the federal government has been paying attention.

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The U.S. cities where the fewest commuters get to work by car

bike waits in traffic
Shutterstock

The Institute for Quality Communities at the University of Oklahoma recently dug through the latest Census metrics on how Americans commute to work, a dataset locally notable for the fact that Tulsa and Oklahoma City don't compare all that well. Relative to the 60 largest cities in America, Oklahoma City ranks last in the share of commuters -- 2.2 percent of them -- who get to work by biking, walking, or public transit. That's as much a reflection of the design of the city as the preferences of its commuters: Simply put, Oklahoma City was built for cars.

In the process of unearthing this ignoble distinction, IQC fellow Shane Hampton also posted some nice visualizations of how major cities stack up against each other by commuter mode share. The data comes from the 2012 American Community Survey, which records how people primarily get to and from their jobs (not necessarily how they make all of their daily trips, to destinations like the grocery store or church). The original charts are interactive, with individual data points. But we've pulled out a few here as well.

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Can drastic new anti-pollution rules help clean up Beijing’s air?

beijing traffic.
Safia Osman
Beijing traffic.

The air quality in Beijing has grown so bad that it's begun to produce its own catch-22s. All that smog is starting to keep tourists away, but tourism is just the kind of less energy-intensive industry that China needs to develop. The city is hoping to ramp up its public bike-share system, in an effort to shift a majority of trips through the city center onto public transportation. But who would want to ride a bike in this atmosphere?

At least one perverse consequence could be helping. The pollution has gotten so awful that residents and officials long averse to addressing greenhouse gas emissions (at the expense of economic growth) are now clamoring for drastic solutions to its related problem: unbreathable air. As The New York Times reported over the weekend in a piece on the "silver lining" to China's smog:

“Air pollution was the perfect catalyst,” said Wai-Shin Chan, director of climate change strategy in Asia for HSBC Global Research in Hong Kong. “Air pollution is clearly linked to health, and the great thing is that everybody --that’s government officials and company executives alike -- breathes the same air.”

In fact, officials in Beijing proposed new rules Monday that would seem unthinkable in the United States. The city already has a cap on new auto registrations available each month, creating a public lottery with long odds. In August, 1.6 million people applied for new automobile licenses, but only 22,000 are issued each month. Now, among a suite of new anti-pollution measures from the city, the restrictions on new cars will get even tighter. The city currently has about 5.35 million of them. Officials now want to ensure that number levels off at 6 million by 2017 (that would mean about 10,000 new permits each month over the next five years).

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy

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Why are some states trying to ban LEED green building standards?

leed building
Chris Phan
LEED Gold-certified Wayne L. Morse U.S. Courthouse in Eugene, Ore.

The amendments and executive orders never actually mention LEED by name. They ban new construction built with public money from seeking (or requiring) any green building certification that's not recognized by something called the American National Standards Institute, or that doesn't treat all certifications for wood products equally. But that's really just a mouthful meant to ensure no more LEED-certified courthouses or state offices or libraries.

Behind the bans are a group of industries -- primarily conventional timber, plastics, and chemicals -- unhappy that much of their product goes unrecognized by the LEED standard created by the U.S. Green Building Council. LEED now certifies a million and a half square feet of real estate a day, affixing a "green" label onto public buildings, commercial offices, and private homes that rack up points on a 100-point scale and rewards things like locally sourced materials and energy-efficient design.

Using lumber clear-cut from the side of a sensitive stream half a continent away does not, in short, get you anything.

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The larger the city, the more it pollutes, right?

largest

As we've previously written, researchers now know that cities obey some fascinating scaling relationships. The larger they grow in population, the more patents, infrastructure, crime, and economic output cities produce, each according to its own exponential equation. When a city doubles in size, for instance, it more than doubles its GDP.

Until now, though, the relationship between population and pollution has been less clear. Larger cities must produce way more of it, right? Beijing, with its 20 million people, seems perpetually steeped in the kind of smog that's visible from space. And yet, larger cities are also supposed to have all kinds of energy-efficiency benefits, and 8 million New Yorkers can't possibly drive as much as 8 million people who live just about anywhere else in America.

Beijing.
Shutterstock / Zhu Difeng
Beijing.

NASA scientists have been studying satellite data from across the globe in an effort to tease out the connect between population and pollution. In a paper recently published in Environmental Science & Technology, they've determined that cities follow a fairly similar scaling principle on the pollution front, too, although the relationship between population and air quality varies depending on where in the world you look.

The scientists focused on measures of nitrogen dioxide, or NO2, stuff that's produced from burning fossil fuels and car traffic. It's bad for you, but good for science: NO2 offers a close proxy for air quality. And the researchers were able to model NO2 levels in urban areas around the world (excluding obvious culprits like power plants) using data collected by the Ozone Monitoring Instrument on NASA's Aura satellite.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy

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Climate change could make summer crime waves worse

Photo by Shutterstock.

Chicago has suffered over the past few months from a particularly bad case of the twin maladies of summer in the city: heat and crime waves. In the last week of August alone, 82 people were shot in Chicago, including as many as 19 over a single midweek night. As a depressing indicator of just how common this news had become, the local media was reduced to reporting the shootings in bullet-point form.

The Chicago spree, as unusually severe as it has been, mimics a pattern that researchers (and police officials, and, heck, just about all of us) have long observed. When temperatures go up, crime often does, too (last summer’s startling London riots were partly blamed on the weather). Theorizing about Chicago’s "Bloody Summer" back in July, William Bratton, the former top police official in Boston, New York City, and Los Angeles, put it this way in the Wall Street Journal:

Also influencing this year's surge in violence: The most brutal part of Chicago's winter was that it barely came. With winter warm and spring starting early, people filled the streets in some of the toughest neighborhoods rife with drug gangs. Violence that typically comes with the heat of summer got an early start.

Bratton didn’t draw this conclusion himself, but it doesn’t take much of a leap in logic to connect crime and heat waves with one broader explanation for Chicago’s warm winter and early spring. That would be climate change.

Read more: Cities