Not just for drug deals anymore

Greening the alleys of Los Angeles

This article is part of a collaboration with Planetizen, the web's leading resource for the urban planning, design, and development community. Green alley projects are popping up in cities all over the U.S. and Canada, in an effort to make the concrete jungle a little better at absorbing rainwater. A new program in Los Angeles goes beyond the runoff to actively integrate these once-derelict spaces into the urban fold.

The Transit Authority: Stimulus miss

Bills for highways, no change for transit

Think all news is bad news during this epic recession of ours? Think again -- over the past three months, real wages have increased 23 percent, an enormous gain. At a crucial period for many working families, paychecks are going a lot farther than they did back in the summer. The explanation is simple: wages are flat, prices are down. The labor market operates on a bit of a lag, so while the recession affected oil demand and prices very quickly, layoffs and falling wages are emerging more slowly. Eventually, the weak economy will catch up to workers (those who still have jobs), and spending power will decline. But this is important to remember given the trends of the past decade. When economies are growing, oil prices rise. This means that even while wages are growing, it's difficult for consumer spending power to keep up, unless we reduce the intensity of oil in our economy. How can we do this? Easy -- cut commuting times, reduce driving, reduce congestion, green intercity travel and green freight shipping (so that rising oil prices don't feed through to prices for other goods, including food). This, of course, is the logic behind a push for greener infrastructure. Better transit and rail systems boost productivity -- by improving movement of goods and people -- which increases wages. They also reduce the petroleum intensity of the economy. In a boom period, you then have rising wages that aren't much eroded by rising energy costs. And that means a richer and greener society. Barack Obama understands this; at least, that's what we've been led to believe by his speeches. Many Congressional leaders understand it too. And it is therefore very disappointing to see the contents of the new American Recovery and Reinvestment Act -- also known as the stimulus bill. As has been widely reported, roughly $30 billion of the proposed infrastructure spending will go to highways, while only $10 billion is allocated toward transit and rail.

Links to enviro news and more

Driving change in Washington

Transportation projects get big money from state, feds

As the nation turns its attention toward the big Inaugural events next week, Washington Governor Chris Gregoire (D) danced her way (back) into office during her own Inaugural Ball Wednesday night. But the celebration was over the next day as she announced her economic stimulus plan for the state, which faces its biggest budget shortfall in history. While a big chunk of change -- more than $800 million -- would go toward accelerating building and road projects, she also suggests funding greener ventures: Some $30 million would help construct water-pollution-control facilities, and $10 million would install alternative-energy equipment in government facilities. Gregoire also hopes to create 20,000 new jobs in the next two years. There's no word on exactly how many of those are "green jobs," but there are likely to be quite a few openings in light-rail construction now that Sound Transit has been awarded a $813 million federal grant as part of the Federal Transit Administration's New Starts program. The three-mile light-rail tunnel linking hot-spots in Seattle was awarded the FTA's top rating because of the city's dense population and high transit-ridership. The money, which covers about 40 percent of the $1.9 billion price tag, will come primarily from federal gas taxes.

Let cyclists roll

In Oregon, bicyclists want to roll through traffic-free stop signs

In the '70s, the right-on-red wave passed through the states as drivers were increasingly frustrated by idling at red lights devoid of cross traffic. When one is stopped at a red light on a timer, a right-on-red and the even more daring left-on-red -- permitted in Oregon in some situations -- make sense. What makes even more sense is to let bicyclists treat stop signs as yield signs so they can roll through or stop when appropriate. Adopting a similar rule from Idaho, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance is trying to get the laws changed in Oregon to make biking easier while imposing no downside for automotive traffic. This is an idea that should spread to all 50 states; it's the right-on-red movement of the 21st century.

Radiant Cities: Suburbia edition

New book offers a prescription for 21st century suburbia

Pay no attention to the images of skeletal subdivisions abandoned in the face of high gas prices (remember those?) and the burst housing bubble: Suburbia is not dead. It's not even dying. Half of all Americans live in suburban areas, and 40 percent of American jobs are rooted there. But our suburbs are unsustainable, and not because we've rediscovered the joys of urban dwelling and a connection between vehicle miles traveled and quality of life ... and air. In fact, the greatest threat to suburbs over the next decade is this: "There might not be enough people to live in them." So says June Williamson, author of Retrofitting Suburbia. In the 1950s, 50 percent of American households had children. Now, says Williamson, that percentage has shrunk to 35; by 2030, it'll be down to 25 percent. Without families to fill those McMansions, suburbs will need new housing types for retirees who want to downsize and grown children who wish to remain close to home (though this unearthed article has one housewife comparing suburbia to jail). Not all those folks want to shift into urban centers, or can afford to. So suburbia is due for a massive makeover. Yes, it's time for a retrofit.

Convenient facts about an inconvenient truth, part 2

A detailed look at building, industry, transportation, and land-use greenhouse-gas emissions

Greenhouse gases come in two basic flavors: carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, and emissions from land use -- agriculture, forests, peat bogs, and waste management. Fossil fuels are primarily used for energy in three sectors: buildings, industry, and transportation. Transportation is almost entirely oil-based -- according to the International Energy Association, about 0.1 percent of transportation energy currently comes from electricity. Just to make things complicated, people use fossil fuels to make electricity to use in buildings and industry. Well, actually, we use fossil fuels to make electricity -- and -- we use fossil fuels to make heat to use in buildings and industry. In my previous post, I presented some pretty exciting tables summarizing this global state of affairs (and the accompanying Google workbook). Now, in part 2, a detailed look at building, industry, transportation, and land-use emissions:

Game changer

Upgrade freight rail: Save 12 percent of oil, 4 percent of emissions, and jumpstart renewable grid

On the theory that many people who encounter Alan Drake's own words on greening freight end up overwhelmed by the details, I have presented a very simplified version of Drake's proposal with my own opinions. This is a deliberate attempt to focus on the most important points, and then steer people to read the whole thing. [Update: The Washington Monthly has a long article on this as well.] Obviously the disagreement with Drake, as well as the political analysis at the end, is my own judgment. In addition Drake does not know me, though we've corresponded briefly, and he has no responsibility for anything I wrote. Grist has discussed Alan Drake's proposal for greening freight before, but somehow it's always mentioned in passing and without real recognition that it's such a game changer. By switching 85 percent of long-haul trucking to rail, we could reduce U.S. oil use by about 12 percent and total U.S. emissions by about 4 percent. In addition, it would add long-distance power transmission across the lines of regional grids, creating a true U.S. national grid to share power from coast to coast and from north to south, and it would add-high speed passenger travel. Since it would depend almost entirely on existing rail rights-of-way, the environmental impact is small compared to transmission projects and transit projects that use new rights-of-way. Drake starts with the fact that long-distance freight trucking consumes about half as much oil as passenger transport, and that unlike passenger transport, we have an existing heavy rail system that can move goods with about eight times the energy efficiency of trucking. That system already reaches most destinations where we want to move goods. If we switched to rail, we would still need to use trucks to move goods to and from freight yards, but containerization makes that simple. That is the good news. The bad news is that our existing rail system won't let us make this switch on a large scale. Today's freight rail operates near capacity now, and existing rail freight is slow and unreliable as compared to trucking. Drake proposes that we upgrade our system, add various new controls and infrastructure, build second tracks besides existing rail runs, and electrify the most heavily trafficked routes, which allows trains to run at higher speeds, giving a capacity boost over and above that provided by additional tracks. These modifications provide vastly improved capacity, speed, and reliability, and they reduce energy requirements per freight-ton. Moreover, this transformation requires only standard technology in use today throughout the world.

Urban doubt-fitter

What Obama's picks signal for urban policy

Who are President Obama's key urban policy advisers? What do his pickes for Housing and Urban Development and Transportation say about an Obama urban policy?

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