Apparently New England leads the way in energy-efficient office buildings. Now if only there was anyone left to work in them.
Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski (D) has attracted a lot of attention by calling for an expansion of a pilot program that replaces the gas tax with a per-mile tax which charges the same fee to a Hummer driver as a Prius driver. The pros and cons of mileage taxes vs. gas taxes are discussed in a post to the political blog BlueOregon, and the same essay was sent out as a query on a transportation activists' listserv. I started several times to respond ... But I end up stopping, because this whole discussion ignores the elephant -- heck, the blue whale -- in the driveway.
The city of Phoenix celebrated the dawning of the new year by beginning normal, paying service on its shiny new light rail line. The current 20-mile segment runs from north of central Phoenix through the city, past Sky Harbor airport, and into Tempe and Mesa. If current plans are realized, an extension to the line will be completed by 2012, and a full(ish) network will begin to take shape over the following decade. The light rail line is part of a wave of transit construction that's bringing transit systems to a new generation of booming cities. These emergent metropolises often went through crucial development phases at a time when the highway was king. Compared to older cities in the Northeast and Midwest, the amount of space devoted to dense, gridded development in such places is quite small indeed, and it has long been unclear whether transit could work in these cities, built for the car. A dreadful chicken and egg problem seems to exist. Few neighborhoods are currently dense enough to support transit, so opponents argue that systems won't draw riders. And because opponents can make this argument and systems often die on the drawing board, these cities never have the opportunity to catalyze denser, transit-oriented growth.
Projections from the International Energy Agency show global energy demand growing by close to 30 percent by 2020, setting the stage for massive growth in the carbon dioxide emissions that are warming our planet. But dramatically ramping up energy efficiency would allow the world to not only avoid growth in energy demand but also actually reduce global demand to below 2006 levels by 2020. We can reduce the amount of energy we use by preventing the waste of heat and electricity in buildings and industrial processes and by switching to efficient lighting and appliances. We can also save an enormous amount of energy by restructuring the transportation sector. Many of the needed energy efficiency measures can be enacted relatively quickly and pay for themselves. Buildings are responsible for a large share of global electricity consumption and raw materials use. In the United States, buildings account for 70 percent of electricity use and close to 40 percent of total CO2 emissions. Retrofitting existing buildings with better insulation and more-efficient appliances can cut energy use by 20 to 50 percent. A U.S.-based group of forward-thinking architects and engineers has set forth the Architecture 2030 Challenge, with the goal of reducing fossil-fuel use in new buildings 80 percent by 2020 on the way to going entirely carbon-neutral by 2030.
Back in 1993, I took a scalpel to the "AUTO-FREE NEW YORK" sticker on my bike, excising the first "R" so that "AUTO-FREE" became "AUTO-FEE." After years of battling motor vehicles, first as an urban cyclist and later as president of the bike-advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, I became convinced that it made more sense to charge for cars' use of roads than to try to eliminate them. "Don't ban cars, bill them!" Discourage vehicle use by internalizing the harms from driving in the price to drive, and invest the revenues in mass transit and other alternatives. Since then, cities like London, Stockholm, and Milan have demonstrated the power of road pricing to reduce driving and cut travel times, pollution damages, crash costs, and the like. But even those gains pale beside the profusion of benefits for New York City promised by a new plan I've developed with Ted Kheel: Enough revenue to finance an average 60 percent cut in transit fares; A 15 percent-or-greater improvement in traffic speeds in gridlocked Manhattan; Yogi Berra made real: greater usage of less-crowded buses and subways; More car-free spaces, and fewer cars, in the heart of the city. The Kheel-Komanoff Plan (so named to distinguish it from the "pure" Kheel Plan approach, with 100 percent-free transit) delivers all this with just four measures:
"The McMansion has almost become embarrassing to some people. They're listening not just to their wallet but their conscience." -- Illinois builder Scott Van Duzor on the slowing of the McMansion trend (forgive us if we're skeptical -- we've heard this one before)
A fascinating little article in Sunday's Boston Globe Ideas section highlights some recent scientific studies on the psychological effects of city life: Just being in an urban environment, they have found, impairs our basic mental processes. After spending a few minutes on a crowded city street, the brain is less able to hold things in memory, and suffers from reduced self-control ... "The mind is a limited machine," says Marc Berman, a psychologist at the University of Michigan and lead author of a new study that measured the cognitive deficits caused by a short urban walk. "And we're beginning to understand the different ways that a city can exceed those limitations." So is it the sensory overload of being in an urban environment or the lack of nature that does the damage? It seems to be a bit of both: Numerous studies have shown, for instance, that hospital patients recover more quickly when they can see trees from their windows and that apartment-dwellers function better when their units overlook a grassy courtyard. Green spaces provide a mental break, according to the article, from the "urban roil." But what if the urban space isn't roiling? I mean, it stands to reason that walking through Times Square during a power outage at 5 a.m. on a Sunday morning would tax the brain less than doing so on New Year's Eve, but would it be less taxing than hiking through a riotous rainforest? Interestingly enough, the answer is probably "no." The article goes on to explain that when it comes to nature, the more sensory stimulation, the better. Although [Frederick] Olmsted took pains to design parks with a variety of habitats and botanical settings, most urban greenspaces are much less diverse. This is due in part to the "savannah hypothesis," which argues that people prefer wide-open landscapes that resemble the African landscape in which we evolved. Over time, this hypothesis has led to a proliferation of expansive civic lawns, punctuated by a few trees and playing fields.However, these savannah-like parks are actually the least beneficial for the brain. In a recent paper, Richard Fuller, an ecologist at the University of Queensland, demonstrated that the psychological benefits of green space are closely linked to the diversity of its plant life. When a city park has a larger variety of trees, subjects that spend time in the park score higher on various measures of psychological well-being, at least when compared with less biodiverse parks. OK, you say, so now surprise me. I don't need a psych study to tell me that a walk in the park is good for the mood. Or that traffic jams are less fun than lakes and butterflies. Point taken. But to the extent that scientific studies can help make the case for innovative urban design, including greener, airier homes and apartments, wilder public parks, and less concrete in between, then I'm all for them. And hey, it's a good argument for a corner office.
Getting a grip on climate chaos is going to require a functioning rail system -- one that people will willingly use. Would such a system arrest photographers participating in its own annual photo contest? Every time Amtrak falls apart -- which typically occurs on days ending in "y" -- it hurts us all. If Obama wants to make concrete change fast, he could do no better than to make rail revitalization a high priority. He should aim to create a system that he would be happy to have Malia, Sasha, and Michelle use. Meanwhile, we've got Amtrak ... because the federal government doesn't think the DMV inflicts quite enough suffering.