Car culture on the skids

USA Today: oil prices drive up asphalt costs, derail road maintenance

For decades, public cash has gushed into building infrastructure designed to get us around in those little (or not-so-little) privatized pods. Indeed, the mobilization to create and maintain our road and highway network probably counts as our greatest public achievement of the last half-century. Meanwhile, while the highway rode high, our rail-transportation network crashed. Attacked and defunded by politicians and rejected by the public, Amtrak lurches on, barely. It’s a a parody of a transportation system — unrecognizable as such by anyone who’s ever caught a train in Western Europe. Things may be changing, though. High oil prices aren’t just …

Scooter ridership zooms as gas prices rise

For reasons both environment- and wallet-related, motor scooter ridership is zooming (along with transit and bike ridership, natch). Between 1997 and 2007, annual sales of new scooters jumped from 12,000 to 131,000. Scooter sales in the first three months of 2008 were up 24 percent over the same time period last year, and sellers are having trouble keeping scooters in stock. But engine-powered two-wheelers don’t get a full embrace from purists. “While scooters are better than cars from a spatial-efficiency and pollution standpoint, they are noisy, still somewhat polluting (especially two-stroke engines) and they still make streets less safe for …

Train of thought

Rail and the coming changes in transport

National Train Day was marked this year on May 10, so it's not too incredibly late to mention two new books of note: John Stilgoe's Train Time: Railroads and the Imminent Reshaping of the United States Landscape that came out in the fall says that rail is "an economic and cultural tsunami about to transform the United States." Maybe that's a little grand, but rail is definitely on the ascendancy, since it can move people and freight at a fraction of the energy usage vs. petroleum. Also, Radio Ecoshock's March 28 edition of its useful weekly podcast had a recording (skip to minute 11 for the presentation) by authors Richard Gilbert and Anthony Perl at the launch event for their new book Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight without Oil. They are forecasting a grid-tied and electrified (increasingly from renewables) rail system among four revolutions coming in transport:

Toxic trailers will be used again if need be, says FEMA

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has promised it will never again use formaldehyde-tainted trailers to house victims of a natural disaster — unless, of course, it does. In a draft disaster housing report, the agency said it would use the trailers if need be, though as a last resort, and for no longer than six months. Some 500 families made homeless in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina are still living in toxic trailers. Hurricane season started June 1, and forecasters predict a good chance of two to five major Atlantic storms.

Globalization death watch, Part I

Airlines, cargo ships increasingly desperate due to rising fuel costs

Globalization was built on cheap oil. As that era draws to a close, so will the current phase of global integration, whether Thomas Friedman, Wal-Mart, and all those involved in intercontinental trade like it or not. The current transportation infrastructure is based on cars, trucks, airplanes, and cargo ships, which together consume about 70 percent of the gasoline used in the United States. While the greatest focus has been on cars, trucking and airline companies are facing collapse. The International Air Transport Association just published a new report in which they call the situation of many airlines "desperate." According to The N.Y. Times: If price of oil, which is now just below $130 a barrel, averages $107 over 2008, the aviation industry would lose $2.3 billion for the year, the chief executive of the group, Giovanni Bisignani, said. Should it hold at $135 a barrel for the rest of the year, the industry will lose $6.1 billion.

Vertical farms and future cities

Sustainability a big theme at the World Science Festival

What do vertical farms, green roofs, soft cars, breathing walls, and Dongtan, China, have in common? They were all subjects of discussion at Friday's Future Cities event in New York City, part of the four-day 2008 World Science Festival. To a packed house, Columbia University microbiologist Dickson Despommier described his vision for feeding the planet's burgeoning, and increasingly urban, population. The vertical farm takes agriculture and stacks it into the tiers of a modern skyscraper. Instead of stopping at the corner pizzeria for dinner, Despommier suggested, you could pluck a nice head of lettuce, maybe some corn, and some tomatoes for a big salad, all in your own building, on the way to your apartment. You can't get fresher or more local than that. According to Despommier, the farms will be "grown organically: no herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers." (Of course, being indoor, there won't be many insects to spray for.) The farms will also require much less irrigation since all water can be re-circulated, and they'll curb the growing pressure to turn forest into farmland. The vertical farm sounds (and looks) pretty amazing, and certainly Despommier deserves much credit for thinking boldly ... but I was left with several questions.

More employees encouraged to telecommute, work short weeks

Employers across the country are offering workers the option to telecommute or work a four-day week to help cut down on fuel costs. Compressed work weeks are particularly attractive to employees who work in places without reliable mass transit — especially since a 10-hour day can mean coming in early and leaving late enough to avoid rush hour traffic. As an added bonus, offices find that fewer employees on site means lessened energy costs. And allowing workers to cut down on commuting can also increase morale. “As the price of gas rises, the level of grumbling rises,” says a spokesperson …

Muddy footprints

What a ranking of cities can tell us — and what it can’t

There's a big carbon footprint report out yesterday from Brookings. It ranks cities [PDF] according to their per capita carbon emissions. Sort of, anyway. Before I pick on it a little, I guess I should mention that Pacific Northwest cities do exceptionally well. Out of the 100 cities in the analysis, Portland ranks 3rd, Boise is 5th, and Seattle 6th. There's very little difference between them. That's wonderful and all, but the analysis only covers about 50 percent of emissions. It excludes, for instance, commercial and industrial energy, maritime and aviation emissions, and some other significant pieces of the pie.

City residents emit less CO2, study says

Residents of the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the United States emit less carbon dioxide pollution per capita than the U.S. average, according to a new study. The Brookings Institution analyzed data on household and transportation energy use and found that the average U.S. resident was responsible for about 2.87 tons of carbon pollution a year, but that residents of the U.S.’s 100 largest metro areas had footprints of just 2.47 tons a year on average. Among the 100 largest cities, Honolulu residents were responsible for the least per capita emissions: about 1.5 tons per person per year. Lexington, Ky., …

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