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People-friendly streets: They’re not just for big cities anymore

complete street in Brooklyn
NYCDOT
A tree-lined "complete street" grows in Brooklyn.

Earlier this month, a pair of senators introduced the Safe Streets Act. The bill would bring "complete streets" principles to federal road funding. Complete streets accommodate all users, regardless of whether they're in cars, regardless of age or disability -- pedestrians, bicyclists, wheelchair users, stroller pushers. In practice, this often means streets with sidewalks and bike lanes -- two features that are often missing from roads built in the last half-century.

For too long, traffic engineers simply asked how to move cars as quickly as possible, rather than how to make streets safe to walk along or cross on foot. But now complete-streets policies have been adopted in more than 610 jurisdictions across the U.S., requiring local transportation departments to take the interests of non-drivers into account. The Senate complete-streets bill would require all federally funded road construction or repair to do the same.

So where are these two senators from? Presumably bastions of liberal, coastal urbanism like California or Massachusetts? Try Alaska and Hawaii. The sponsors are Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). Complete streets, it turns out, are appealing in lower-density areas too.

“This is not just an urban priority,” Schatz tells Grist. “It’s important for people to be able to move within their community safely.”

Read more: Cities, Politics

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Obama has a good transportation plan. Now we just need to raise the gas tax to pay for it.

Obama and train
Frank Roche

The problems all started with Newt Gingrich. For decades, federal transportation funding had been a bastion of bipartisanship: The gasoline tax served as a user fee for our roads, 20 percent of the revenue went to mass transit and the rest to highways, and everyone kept the system running so their districts could get what they needed. Then, in 1994, Gingrich led the right-wing Republican insurgency that took over the House of Representatives. They did not want to raise the gas tax, even to keep pace with inflation. They actually tried to repeal the previous gas-tax increase, from 1993. Hatred of the gas tax, like hatred of all taxes, soon calcified into Republican orthodoxy. Rather than increase the gas tax, President George W. Bush presided over a growing gap between our transportation needs and the revenue the tax generated.

And the problem has not been fixed under Obama. With Republicans currently controlling the House, Congress cannot pass a reauthorization of the surface transportation law that would address our nation’s growing transportation investment needs. Instead, they have retained the status quo through a series of short-term extensions and then, in 2012, a two-year authorization (normally the law is extended for six years) that maintained current funding levels by using general revenues to patch a shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund, which is supposed to be fully supported by the gas tax. That authorization expires this year, so some kind of transportation deal will have to be worked out in the coming months.

On Wednesday, Obama went ahead and laid out a progressive vision for a four-year transportation bill, despite the fact that Republicans will never go for it. It would boost transportation spending to a total of $302 billion over four years and reorient that spending in smart ways.

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America’s first carbon-trading program can boast some impressive numbers

RGGI
Shutterstock

How do you turn $1 billion into $2 billion, all the while helping to slow down global warming? By capping carbon dioxide pollution and charging for emissions permits, then plowing the revenues into clean energy and energy-efficiency programs.

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a carbon-trading program that covers nine Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, charged power plants about $1 billion for the right to pollute the climate from 2009 to 2012. Of that, $707 million has so far been invested into green programs, and $93 million has been transferred into states' general funds, according to a new RGGI report.

Two-thirds of the investments have been used to help utility customers cut back on the amount of power that they use. Those efficiency improvements are eventually expected to save 800,000 households and 12,000 businesses more than $1.8 billion in energy bills.

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IKEA is in trouble for cutting down 600-year-old trees

PhotoRepro:1 Adam BPhotorepro: 2 Adam B
Ambcinpi

According to the U.K.'s Sunday Times, the Forest Stewardship Council has banned disposable-furniture retailer IKEA from cutting down trees in Karelia, Russia. The FSC investigated the Karelia logging operations of Swedwood, the furniture giant's forestry subsidiary, and found it was cutting down trees that were up to 600 years old.

The Times says that the FSC, an international nonprofit that promotes responsible woodland use, found that Swedwood had several "major deviations" from its logging agreement, which stipulates that the company will back off of old trees and trees growing on slopes (which would erode without root systems holding them in place). So Swedwood's forestry stewardship certificate has been suspended, which seems like a fitting punishment for lousy forestry stewardship.

Read more: Living

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New Google Street View project lets you hang out with polar bears

Google Street View published a project today that lets you hang out with polar bears. I mean, not in real life, but there is this nice video:

If you want to get a sense of how much more fun it is to actually travel to Canada and see polar bears IRL than to look at Google Street View photos of polar bears, we recommend this PopSci feature that has a lot of reporting about polar bears and not all that much about the Google project. But there is this helpful bit about what Google is hoping to accomplish:

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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How big meat recalls hurt small cattle ranches

West Marin cattle
Terrie Schweitzer

Whenever there’s a giant meat recall, the first and often only reaction is disgust. It’s entirely justified self-interest: People want to be sure that their ground chuck hasn’t ever shared a vat with pathogens. But these recalls also have an effect on the other end of the food chain, which we rarely consider.

After “diseased and unsound animals” were killed without a full inspection, the USDA closed the Rancho Feeding slaughterhouse in Petaluma, Calif.  While the numbers sound huge -- 9 million pounds were recalled -- the reality is fairly small scale. As Grist commenter Rachel pointed out, 9 millions pounds translates to killing fewer than 10 cows an hour over a year. Large operations slaughter hundreds an hour.

Rancho won’t reopen; at least not in its current form. The abattoir lost its right of inspection, meaning it will have to start from scratch, rebuilding and replacing equipment to bring the facility up to modern standards.

Meanwhile, the ranchers that rely on the plant are struggling to survive. Having a local slaughterhouse is vital to maintaining local agriculture. Much of the land around Petaluma is ideally suited for raising seasonal, grass-fed cattle. But without a means to kill those cattle, those ranches won’t be viable. The next nearest slaughterhouse is a three to four hour drive away. As my colleague Heather Smith has pointed out, if omnivores want to eat local, we have to kill local.

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Whole Foods doesn’t want organic food and regular food to touch (but this may not be totally crazy)

NO TOUCHING!
Jeff Cutler
NO TOUCHING!

The Daily Beast has an article that takes a lot of words to criticize Whole Foods, and people who believe in traditional medicine in general, by making them out to be a lot of anti-science crackpots. We're not really interested in ragging on probiotics and herbal medicine -- we're open to the possibility that big pharmaceutical companies don't have all the answers to health, and, as long as no one's trying to force school nurses to give kids ginger tea in place of Tylenol or, more seriously, reduce our herd immunity by rejecting vaccines, we're happy to let people eat all the immunity-boosting goji berries they want.

But you have to admit that this part is a little bit funny:

There’s a sign in the Durham store suggesting that shoppers bag their organic and conventional fruit separately—lest one rub off on the other—and grind their organic coffees at home—because the Whole Foods grinders process conventional coffee, too, and so might transfer some non-organic dust. “This slicer used for cutting both CONVENTIONAL and ORGANIC breads” warns a sign above the Durham location’s bread slicer.

I mean, we get the idea: You're spending money for pesticide-free organic food and you don't want it contaminated with pesticides. It does seems a little silly, right?

But, actually, there might be a reasonable explanation.

Read more: Living

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Ask Umbra: Is my compost pile contributing to climate change?

umbra-compost
Shutterstock

Send your question to Umbra!

Q. Composting has become a basic tenet of sustainable living, but it is also under debate: How irredeemable is its methane bi-production? Is there any way for homeowners to process compost so that methane production is limited or eliminated?

Adriana
Santa Rosa, Calif.

A. Dearest Adriana,

Backyard composting sounds almost too good to be true, doesn’t it? You divert food scraps from the landfill and create an ultra-enriching soil booster that nourishes crops and gardens -- and you do it all right out the back door so there’s no fuel used in shipping. So where’s the catch? Well, under certain conditions, decomposing matter does produce methane -- a highly potent greenhouse gas 20 times worse for the climate than carbon dioxide. But here's the unequivocally good news: Your compost pile doesn’t have to. With the right management, backyard compost can indeed be methane-free.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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Snails wearing sweaters might just be the best thing ever

Winter: The perfect time for drinking tea, binge-watching House of Cards, and knitting a sweater for a snail.

Katie Bradley usually sticks to crocheting cozy sweaters for tortoises, as an avid adopter of rescued tortoises -- she has seven. (You may have seen her handiwork here before.) But she had some leftover yarn and whipped it into an itty-bitty snail cozy. ADORBS:

snail-wearing-sweater-tiny-katie-bradley
Katie Bradley

You know, for when your snail is hanging out with your tortoise. It’s important that they match, after all.

Read more: Living

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You might see fewer oil trains on the tracks, thanks to a new emergency order

Oil-hauling train
U.S. Department of Transportation

The rash of exploding railcars across North America was treated with a dash of regulatory tonic this week.

Citing an "imminent hazard" of explosion and fire posed by trains hauling crude, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued an emergency order requiring more thorough testing of oil before it's shipped. The department is especially concerned about oil from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota and Montana, as it's been found to be particularly explosive. The order also bars shipping oil in weak railcars designed for less hazardous materials.

The move could slow train shipments of oil from the Bakken shale and from Canada's tar sands. Bloomberg reports: