Cities

Congestion

Is the cure worse than the disease?

The ever-geekalicious Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute had a great take on traffic congestion a few weeks back on Planetizen. As Litman explains, most congestion studies (such as this annual study, which always gets a lot of press) consistently overestimate the costs of congestion. But even using these relatively high estimates, the costs of congestion are pretty modest, compared with the comprehensive costs of owning and operating a car. In fact, a quick scan of Litman's data suggests that congestion represents less than 5 percent of the total cost of car transportation.

Suburban legend

Widening roads does not, in fact, reduce emissions

Why is it that stupid ideas get all the air time? For months, fellow climate geeks have been telling me that road-builders -- and the politicians who love them -- have started to make a startling claim: namely, that widening a congested highway will help curb global warming. By reducing stop-and-go traffic, the argument goes, cars will operate more efficiently and waste less fuel. So if you want to save the climate, you'd better widen that road! To me, this sounded too dopey to be worth refuting. I mean, sure, over the short term, congestion relief might help a bit. But what about all of the emissions from road building itself -- and, more importantly, from the extra traffic that will inevitably fill those new lanes? But despite its obvious absurdity (or perhaps because of it) this particular suburban legend seems to be getting a life of its own. Just take a look at what British Columbia's Premier had to say recently about a proposed highway widening project in greater Vancouver, BC: Campbell ... continued to defend the [highway] project ... saying that it will reduce emissions and make room for rapid-bus services along the highway. Because I couldn't find anything addressing this issue online (academics have better things to do with their time, apparently), I spent a bit of time running some numbers. You can read the full report here (PDF) if you're a real geek. But in a nutshell: congestion relief may offer some slim GHG benefits over the short term; but these benefits are absolutely dwarfed by the emissions from road construction and, more importantly, by all the extra traffic that fills the expanded roadway. In fact, it looks to me as if adding a single lane-mile to a congested urban highway will boost CO2 emissions by at least 100,000 tons over 50 years. And that's making some pretty optimistic assumptions about fuel economy improvements. So now, if anyone out there in Grist-world hears this particular suburban legend, you'll have some numbers you can use to smack it down.

L.A. considers freeway overpass for wildlife

Los Angeles is considering adding another commuter lane — for wildlife. But a proposal for a $455,000 animal path over the 405 Freeway is unpopular with residents who argue that transportation dollars should go to easing human-caused congestion, not making the commute more enjoyable for bobcats, coyotes, deer, and opossums.

A journey into the heart of industrial agriculture

  Americans live in a post-agricultural age. Today, fewer than two of every 100 U.S. citizens owe their living primarily to the land. A century ago, two of every five did. Yet even though very few of us contribute to food production, we all still eat — and food comes from somewhere. But where? In a sense, the answer is: Iowa, buckle of the farm belt, heart of the heartland. Do you know where your food comes from? Illustration: Keri Rosebraugh Accounting for less than 2 percent of the U.S. landmass, Iowa churns out a fifth of U.S. corn and …

Bikin'

Cities try to help bikers

USA Today says a few American cities are finally, at long last, taking steps to make life easier for bicyclists. This is heartening, I suppose, as far as it goes, but the measures under discussion — mainly bike lanes and some bike-sharing programs — are pretty wan. We’ve got a long, long way to go before biking is a mainstream alternative.

Safe streets

Not pedaling can kill you

My youngest son had a bike wreck this summer: a driver cut him off on a steep downhill. Peter managed to avoid the car by tumbling over the curb, but the fall inflicted some nasty road rash. It also inspired me to dig into the question of bicycle safety more rigorously than before: Is it safe for Peter to be biking so much? Here's what I learned: Biking is safer than it used to be. It's safer than you might think. It does incur the risk of collision, but its other health benefits massively outweigh these risks. And it can be made much safer. What's more, making streets truly safe for cyclists may be the best way to reverse Bicycle Neglect: it may be among communities' best options for countering obesity, climate disruption, rising economic inequality, and oil addiction. The alternative -- inaction -- perpetuates these ills. It also ensures the continued victimization of cyclists and pedestrians. It means the proliferation of GhostBikes. (Pictured here, photo by Paul Takamoto.) GhostBikes are guerrilla memorials to car-on-bike crashes that artists place at the scenes of injuries and deaths in, for example, Seattle, Portland, and New York. (View striking GhostBike photos from Portland and the whole world on Flickr (choose "view slide show").) Let's take these lessons in turn.

Slow your city

Like they do it in Italy

From Der Spiegel: It’s not easy to be punctual for a meeting with Stefano Cimicchi. Parking places are hard to come by in Orvieto, even if cars are still legal. Cars in the city center stick out like a sore thumb among strolling pedestrians, who move to the sides of the streets with studied slowness. After a couple of twisty laps though the narrow medieval alleyways of the old town center, you might find a parking place on the edge of the small Umbrian town — and pay handsomely for the privilege of parking. Cimicchi was mayor of Orvieto from …

Velib' liberates Paris

A Parisian tries out the city’s new rent-a-bike program

The following is a guest essay from my sister, Margie Rynn, who has lived in Paris for seven years. ----- It took me awhile to be willing to try Velib', the new rent-a-bike program now available all over the streets of Paris. I love the idea: anyone can pick up a bike at any metro station or anywhere there's a "borne" (stand) of bikes, ride around for half an hour, and then leave it at any Velib' stand. That first half hour is free, and not only that, the bikes themselves are extremely cool, a sort of futuristic über-bike that makes you feel like there is nothing more high-tech and advanced than a bicycle. For me, though, there was a problem: traffic. I have nothing against Parisians in general, but once they get into a car, these otherwise reasonable people become a hoard of aggressive louts with little concern for the lives of their fellow men, women, and children. Merely driving in this city sends me into a state of extreme anxiety; now you are expecting me to ride a bike?

I had a dream

Seattle in 2020

The year was 2020 and Seattle had become the bicycle capital of the world. Visitors lined the streets to learn how we did it. Thanks to global warming, clothing had gone out of style, but thanks to genetic engineering we could alter our skin pigmentation to be any color we wanted. Racism had become a thing of the past and mustaches were popular again.

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