What environmental organization are you affiliated with? What does it do?

I work at Reconnecting America, a national organization focused on connecting transportation and communities to improve environmental and economic performance and create economic security for families and communities. We promote an interconnected national transport system, relying more on rail and bus for intercity travel; we’re trying to make it easier to develop lively, walkable, dense communities around the nation’s 2,000 transit bus stations, and we are working to help small cities and towns revitalize. I am also chair of the board of the Congress for the New Urbanism, a national group dedicated to remaking cities and regions.

What’s your job title?

President & CEO.

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What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?

I write, research, fund-raise, talk to people all over the country, and try in many ways to educate decision-makers, the media, and the public that change is possible, that we don’t always have to drive, that the communities we live in can become more congenial, walkable places, and that this will save them money, stimulate local economies, and reduce the environmental and public-health impacts of our current transportation and development patterns.

How many emails are currently in your inbox?

1,600.

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With whom do you interact regularly as part of your job? What types of people? What other organizations or government agencies?

Elected officials and their staff, from Congress to mayors to city council people; transit agency staff; for-profit and nonprofit developers; news media; community groups; and lenders and investors.

Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?

My friend and colleague Andres Duany, fellow CNU board member. Andres is unbelievably talented and has contributed so much to our understanding of the way that urban design shapes our economy and our environment. He also practices confrontation as a way of engaging and converting diverse audiences (and of learning from them), and has variously taken on the environmental community, libertarians, engineers, and his own allies. His style is painful and upsetting to people, but we are absolutely on the same team, and I have to grudgingly admit that it is part of the reason we are starting to turn the corner on wasteful sprawl.

Who’s nicer than you would expect?

I’m always pleasantly surprised when I get the chance to sit down with a group of highway engineers in some collaborative setting to find that we share many values about the environment and society, and to find that when they take the time to listen rather than defend their position, we can find common ground.

Where were you born? Where do you live now?

I was born in Oklahoma City, Okla., but moved six weeks later with my parents. I was an Air Force brat and moved incessantly, attending three different high schools in three different states. Since adulthood, I’ve lived in California, Washington, D.C., and now northern New Mexico. In 1998, I moved to Las Vegas, N.M., a majority-Hispanic town of 15,000 people at the intersection of the Llaño Estacado and the Sangre de Christo mountains. It’s an historic town dating back to a Mexican land grant and containing some 900 structures on the state or national registers. It’s a spectacularly rich place in beauty, history, and culture, and quite poor in terms of money.

What was your environmental coming-of-age moment?

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The first Earth Day in 1970. I was a little kid, but it was a big awakening.

What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?

We might be approaching it now. I spent most of the 1990s working to reform federal transportation law and spending to allow non-highway alternatives such as transit, bikes, and walking to be funded, to make highway design less destructive to communities and the environment, to force engineers to consider land-use impacts of their projects, to link air quality and transportation spending, and so on. We made a lot of progress and successfully defended and moved forward under both Bush I and Clinton. All of that may be swept aside in the next few weeks, as Congress is considering a massive increase in highway pork along with a massive loosening of environmental, labor, and public involvement requirements on state highway agencies. The contemplated spending increase is huge — House Transportation Chair Don Young [R-Alaska] wants a $100 billion increase — and there is no debate about whether we are spending it on the right things. The environmental community is only marginally involved, having most of their energy invested in the election, and that’s too bad, because we may have to live with this debacle for the next six years.

What’s on your desk right now?

 

Our new book The New Transit Town: Best Practices in Transit-Oriented Development, out this month from Island Press. It documents the convergence of three trends: the boom in construction of new transit systems all over the country, changing demographics that spell a move back to more vital, denser communities, and a growing understanding on the part of employers that transit-rich cities are the place to be. The book provides the first practical manual for meeting this market demand by building transit-oriented communities in a way that limits the need to drive, can offer an alternative to sprawl, and makes life more affordable for working families. End of shameless plug!

What environmental offense has pissed you off the most?

The fact that blue Wal-Mart bags have become the state flag of New Mexico: They blow onto every other fence, tree, or post. It really brings together disregard for the natural environment and the way that the globalization of retail strip-mines local economies.

Who is your environmental hero?

Susana Almanza, of People Organized in the Defense of Earth and Her Resources, in Austin, Texas.

Who is your No. 1 environmental villain?

Rep. Tom DeLay [R-Texas].

What’s your environmental vice?

I fly way too much as a part of my business. The carbon dioxide I generate from air travel swamps the tiny savings I make from activities like biking to work, recycling, or composting my trash. Check out this personal greenhouse gas calculator.

How do you get around?

I live 1.5 miles from my office, so I try to bike as often as possible. I have 6-year-old twins, so we also do some driving.

What are you reading these days?

Walter Isaacson’s biography Benjamin Franklin. I wanted to learn how Franklin was able to accomplish so many diverse things. I find that my job, my voluntary activities, and my family use all my time, and I want to find time to write fiction and poetry. I found out that Franklin retired at 42 with a guaranteed income from his printing business. Oh well.

What’s your favorite meal?

New Mexico red chili cheese enchiladas.

Are you a news junkie? Where do you get your news?

Moving to New Mexico has helped limit my news junkie tendencies. I read the Sunday New York Times and The Economist, listen to public radio, read The Santa Fe New Mexican and our local paper The Optic, have a news search program for stuff relating to my job, and get lots of email news — including Daily Grist, of course!

Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?

We don’t eat a lot of meat at my house.

What’s your favorite place?

Oh, the places you will go.

The Montezuma hot springs, a mile from my house. It’s been a Santa Fe railroad resort, has a recently restored historic hotel nearby designed by Daniel Burnham, and is maintained by community volunteers and available for soaks free of charge. There’s not much better in life than watching it snow in the mountains while soaking in a hot spring.

If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?

My colleague Scott Bernstein and I are trying to redesign our national network for intercity travel to connect air, intercity rail, and intercity bus with one another. We’d turn airports into travel ports, and we’d turn the Amtrak system into an interconnected system of medium-distance routes hooking up with air travel and major hub airports. If I could, by fiat, divert about $7 billion from the federal highway program, we could put together a program that provided a more environmentally responsible system of travel that was also more convenient than driving or flying medium distances.

When was the last time you wore tie-dye? How about fleece?

Never. I belong to the blank generation.

Do you compost?

Yes, and we harvest rainwater, because there ain’t much rain in northern New Mexico.

Which presidential candidate are you backing in 2004?

Undecided. ABB.

Would you label yourself an environmentalist?

Yes, but not just an environmentalist. As I explain below, my environment has people in it.

What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly?

Relating environmental issues to people who are just struggling to survive.

What’s one issue about which you disagree with other environmentalists?

Cities and human settlements are a part of the environment and have been for a long time now. Wilderness is a cultural artifact of the environmental movement — an artifact worth defending — but the idea that our landscape has not been used by humans is old thinking. If we want to succeed, we need to frame our struggle in terms of a continuum from the most dense urban place to the least dense — what Ian McHarg called designing with nature, and what Andres Duany calls a transect — and acknowledge that all of it is becoming an environment designed by humans. We must accept that heavy burden, and seek to find ways to accommodate humans and other species across that continuum. The falcon soaring past the office tower in downtown L.A. has every right to be there, and it may be giving us a sign about learning to live together. Similarly, the wildlife refuge outside of Las Vegas is a great place to see cranes, but they stop there because they are fed from fields irrigated from a canal that takes water from a river. The canal deprives small farmers on acequias on land grants of water, and it also drains the river of water. A complicated mess, this stewardship, and priorities are not as clear as some environmentalists seem to think.

What could the environmental movement be doing better or differently to attract new people?

We need to start talking about environmental issues in human and family terms. Economic security is what pushes people’s buttons these days, and we have to begin to translate issues like air pollution, climate change, and loss of biodiversity into terms of household budgets, public health, and economic vitality.

What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?

T. Rex and the Velvet Underground; now it’s Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Calexico, and Los Mocosos.

What’s your favorite TV show?

The Rockford Files.

If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?

Calculate the total cost of transportation in your household, in terms of car payments, gas and oil, insurance, wear and tear, and the amount of time you spend on the road. Then think about what it might cost to live in a place where you could get by with one less car, or even share a car, and invest your transportation savings on living in that neighborhood.

Hank Dittmar of Reconnecting America

Hank, I am intrigued by your response, “If we want to succeed, we need to frame our struggle in terms of a continuum from the most dense urban place to the least dense — what Ian McHarg called designing with nature, and what Andres Duany calls a transect — and acknowledge that all of it is becoming an environment designed by humans.” Can you suggest some further reading?     — Chris Arend, Denver, Colo.

The seminal book on the design side of this issue is Design with Nature by Ian McHarg. Sim van der Ryn’s book Ecological Design also addresses these questions. Andres Duany and his partner Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, along with Jeff Speck, will address their “transect” concept in the new Smart Growth Manual, due out this June.

If you want to read more about human influence on the environment, then the emerging practice of landscape ecology is worth checking out. Two books come to mind: Land Mosaics and Road Ecology, both by Harvard professor Richard Forman. From a cultural perspective, two books come to mind: William DeBuys’ Enchantment and Exploitation, all about northern New Mexico, and Rebecca Solnit’s Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West, which shows how Yosemite has always been a place used by humans.

Is computer-based modeling (e.g., UrbanSim) a useful tool for exploring local transportation policies and the costs of sprawl?     — John Faust, Sierra Vista, Ariz.

Traditional transportation models bear much responsibility for the self-perpetuating cycles of development and congestion we are experiencing in most American metro areas. They predict the future based upon trends of the past, and don’t allow policy-makers or people to look at changes in market preferences or public policy. Simulation models are part of the answer, but I think that visualization tools and public involvement techniques are most important. We need to show people different scenarios of the future, and show them how it looks. Policy and science are important, but so are design and pictures of good and relevant examples.

What are the main reasons why there are so few cities in the United States in which one can live without a car?     — Janet Carey, Wilmington, N.C.

A recent survey of planning experts and historians found that the most significant planning action of the past century was the construction of the interstate highway system, for it made possible the suburbanization of America. Federal policy paid for 90 percent of the cost of constructing the interstate, while until the 1960s there were no subsidies for public transit. Up until 1991, in fact, state and local governments could get federal highway funds by contributing 10 cents on the dollar, while they had to match transit capital funds at 50 to 60 percent (a rule this Congress wants to return to, by the way).

The availability of the automobile and the creation of metropolitan highway networks have made it possible for people to live farther and farther away from work, home, and school. In part, suburbanization is due to the exploitation of cheaper land on the urban fringe made accessible by the highway network, and so families choose cheaper housing farther out. The trend is exacerbated by zoning and traffic codes developed in the 1920s, which legislate against mixed land uses and force rigid separation between housing, work, and shopping activities. All of these factors converge to create an environment where transit doesn’t work well, bicycling is dangerous, and walking is darn near impossible.

Our Center for Transit-Oriented Development, headed by my colleague Shelley Poticha, aims to take on the challenge of making sure that the communities of the 21st century are centered around transit and walking as well as the car. Over the past decade there has been a big change in consumer preferences, demographic trends, and transportation planning. More people want to live in walkable, denser communities, and more and more cities are building transit systems. We seek to bring this new type of development to scale in a way that increases housing affordability and choice, revitalizes downtowns and urban and suburban neighborhoods, and generates lasting public and private returns. For more information or to join, visit our website.

What did you mean by “relating environmental issues to people who are just struggling to survive”?     — Wolfger Schneider, Columbia, Md.

One of the legacies of our modern era is the over-concentration of polluting and unhealthy facilities in places where low-income families and people of color live. This is called “environmental racism,” and the solution is called “environmental justice.” Despite a decade or more of work on the issue, the environmental community still appeals to the public mainly around wild places, wild critters, and open space. Making environmentalism work for poor people and working people is also about crafting ways of talking about the problems that relate to the environmental assaults urban dwellers experience every day from exposure to auto exhaust, lack of access to parks and other facilities for exercise and fresh air, food insecurity, and the unaffordability of a lifestyle that requires a reliable car to survive and be accepted as cool. For low-income and working people, the way to talk about the environment is to talk about public health and economic security — and the way to make things happen is to empower those folks through right-to-know strategies, education, capacity-building, and enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. For more information on the environmental justice movement, look at the Environmental Justice Resource Center’s website.

To what extent are you and your colleagues in the smart-growth community aware of car sharing? Is it discussed in your book? What’s your take on its potential to reduce car ownership and build support for better transit?     — Steve Gutmann, Portland, Ore.

Our book The New Transit Town does address car sharing as one of a phalanx of transit-supportive and transit-oriented development activities, along with bike stations, child-care centers, and newsstands. Part of making transit work for more people is creating neighborhoods where you don’t need a car for everything. That said, sometimes everybody needs a car, and that’s where car sharing comes in. I am also on the board of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a Chicago-based nonprofit that has sponsored a Chicago car-sharing operation called I-GO. I am not sure whether car sharing has yet developed a sustainable business model, but I think it is an interesting complement to public transit, and I hope it works over the long run.

What’s the plan for getting people — namely young college grads — to move to high-crime, low-income, low-tax-base inner cities? What’s the first step in achieving inner-city vitality?     — Frank Felbaum, Harrisburg, Penn.

Increasingly, young people are moving back to cities, a trend seen in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Chicago, and Denver. They want vital, lively, walkable places, and access to transit — and they are drawing employers back too. Getting married couples with kids back is a little tougher, as it means making urban schools work better.

What is your group doing to encourage increased buy-in for a strong national rail system from our governing officials?     — Jesse Aliano, Greensboro, N.C.

We are making the case for a more integrated approach to intercity travel, leading to the creation of a national policy framework, which in turn leads to the development of “travelports” linking air, rail, and intercity bus; to the redefinition of Amtrak as primarily a medium-distance carrier in an integrated hub-and-spoke system; and to the creation of an Essential Transportation Service program that provides rural communities with improved transportation options. Increasing the reliance on rail and bus for short and medium-distance trips is expected to yield significant environmental benefits, as they are far more energy- and carbon-efficient than either auto travel or short-distance air service.

At the same time, our analysis of economic studies of investment in transportation reveals that we have reached a point where continued investment in air or highway capacity is less effective than simply leaving the money in the economy, and that the next productivity breakthrough is likely to come from networking our separate transportation systems. Last December, we released Missed Connections II, a report that documents a significant restructuring of aviation, with more flights being carried by small regional jets, most cities losing service, and an overall reduction in flights under 400 miles. These distances can be easily served by rail and bus, and if rail and bus services are integrated into major hub airports — as they increasingly are in Europe — the result could be a more financially robust and sustainable network that is more convenient for travelers.

Why not at least suggest going car-free? It is a liberating experience.     — Jonathan Allen, Cambridge, Mass.

In a one-car household, one less car is car-free. One of the case studies in our new book New Transit Town focuses on Arlington County, Va., a suburban county in the D.C. region that decided to focus development around the MetroRail system 30 years ago. They have been incredibly successful, and one of the metrics of that success is the substantial number of car-free households (with above-average income, meaning they are car-free by choice) in the county. Interestingly enough, the strategy has been a financial success for the county, with the 7 percent of the land nearest the stations contributing one-third of the property tax revenue, allowing it to have the lowest rates of any Northern Virginia county!

I’m an automotive engineer living in northern Indiana the heart of the RV industry here in the corn and rust belts. Amazingly, there is federally subsidized bus service between the town I live in and the town where I work. My wife and I got rid of one of our cars in August, and at least four days a week I ride the bus and walk over a mile each way to and from work. I do it for the savings, for the environment, and for my health. My coworkers, who are almost all fairly hard-core conservatives, outwardly indicate that they find this amusing and/or insane. Secretly, though, I suspect they are overcome with envy for my having trumped them in the rat race. What do you think?     — Rod Schlabach, Goshen, Ind.

They may think you are crazy, but I think you are way cool.

What steps do you think need to be made in North America (I’m Canadian) to rethink the use of the bicycle from a recreation tool, which it currently is in most of North America, to a transportation vehicle, which it already is in many parts of the world?     — Robert Hopp, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

The industry markets bicycling as a sport, not as transportation. Until recently, it was hard to buy a quality bike with gears, fenders, a light, a rack, and a kickstand. All of these things were available as options, but that’s a pain. I recently discovered Breezer bikes, which are quality bikes made for commuting. If they succeed in the market, maybe the big manufacturers will follow suit. Another Grist reader who wrote on this subject also mentioned a company that makes cargo bikes called Xtracycle.

The second thing we need is safe infrastructure. There has been much progress made on trails, a lot funded through the Federal Transportation Enhancements program. A next step is what’s called “routine accommodation,” so that roads are routinely designed to accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians. This issue is being debated in Congress this year as they move to reauthorize the transportation spending bill.

Where in the U.S. is progress being made toward your aims? Where worldwide?     — Peter Sephton, Editor, MassTransport.com, Sheffield, U.K.

In the U.S., Portland, Ore., is trying, as are a number of cities in the San Francisco Bay Area. There is much progress in Denver and Dallas as well. There is a trend toward bringing rail to airports in the New York region, in San Francisco, in Portland, and in Milwaukee. In Europe, the Netherlands and Copenhagen come to mind. In Australia, Melbourne does a good job.

You mentioned that environmentalists need to face up to the fact that the world is increasingly becoming “an environment designed by humans.” Interestingly enough, both Aldo Leopold, in his classic A Sand County Almanac, and Roy Bedichek, in his equally essential Adventures with a Texas Naturalist, write about the seemingly paradoxical fact that right-of-ways along highways and rail lines have become sanctuaries for a variety of flora because they were not fenced off or grazed. What is another example of a place or event that is often viewed as detrimental but has in some way been beneficial to the environment?     — Ryan McGillicuddy, San Marcos, Texas

You cite two great books! Here in northern New Mexico, Pueblo Indians and, later, the Spanish created the acequia system of dirt irrigation ditches that take water from the river and irrigate fields. As they are dirt-lined, they create riparian zones, attracting trees, birds, small mammals, and even beavers. In their zeal for efficiency, the Army Corps and others propose concrete linings, but that deprives the land of its water. A small note about highways and rail corridors: Sometimes they become sanctuaries for invasive species of flora.

If I am reading the federal budget correctly, a far greater amount of federal dollars is being invested in highway expansion than to expand rail and bus services. What, if anything, is being done to convince our legislators that they need to reverse their priorities?     — Rudy Ramp, Arcata, Calif.

For more information on the battle going on right now, check in with the Surface Transportation Policy Project, fighting for a more balanced national policy. They need all the help they can get!