Cities

This urban life

Even the greenest suburbs can’t touch low urban emission rates

Last Sunday, the Washington Post published a piece by Joel Kotkin and Ali Modarres which sought to debunk the ideas that dense urban areas are greener than their suburban counterparts and that encouraging dense growth might play a significant role in reducing America’s carbon output. The piece was wrong or misleading on practically every point, to the extent that any complete response would take up far more time and space than I have available. Some of the authors’ most egregious errors simply must be addressed, however. Kotkin and Modarres spend the first half of their op-ed arguing that cities contribute …

Wheels of fortune

Bikeways pay for themselves

A decade ago, we wrote that the bicycle is one of the world's seven everyday wonders because it's so simple, effective, affordable, and pollution-free. To that list, we might have added "enriching." Bicycling for transportation pumps money into local economies. Bikes are wheels of fortune. (Thanks to Flickr photographer hanbyholems for the picture to the right.) If your community spends money building bikeways, you and your neighbors will cycle more. Your cycling will put extra money in the local economy. (I'll explain how in a moment.) The extra money will make the community rich enough to pay for more bikeways. More bikeways will induce more cycling, and the virtuous circle will continue. Let's break the process into steps. Building bikeways costs money. Bikeways are cheap, especially compared to roads and trains, but they're not free. In the Puget Sound area, construction can easily cost more than $1 million per mile for a new trail or lane -- not counting land. Seattle's 10-year Bicycle Master Plan sketches a citywide network of cycling routes estimated to cost about $240 million. Retrofitting all of Cascadia's communities for Bicycle Respect -- integrated systems of separate, signaled bikeways as found in parts of northern Europe -- would cost billions of dollars. (Sort of like RTID/ST and Pacific Gateway.)

Congested roads, free-flowing people

Commuters in Seattle avoid congested roads by driving less

Apparently, folks in Greater Seattle are responding to congestion by ... driving less! Which is, quite literally, no surprise at all. A comprehensive study of transportation patterns in cities across the globe found that high levels of congestion are linked with low overall energy consumption. When roads get congested, people adjust, and find alternatives to long, time-consuming commutes. And that's what seems to be happening in Seattle. Highway congestion has grown in the region, as it has virtually everywhere in the U.S. But per-capita car ownership is on the decline, and total vehicle miles per capita has begun to level off. More importantly, the article cites evidence that growth management laws have concentrated much of the region's recent growth into already-urbanized areas -- the sorts of places where people don't have to make long treks to jobs or stores.

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.

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