Posts Tagged 'Transportation'

From Green to Black: The Environmental Movement Lost in Translation

calcutta traffic jam. photo by yumievriwan.

THE LOOMING THREAT OF GLOBAL warming and the ever-climbing cost of gas have made options like cycling to work, using mass transit and car sharing trendy in the United States. Green is our new mantra, however far removed our true habits may be from our ideals. But on the other side of the globe, entire populations of consumers that have long gone without are now snatching up cheap automobiles, and you can bet they won’t be slapping “carbon offset” bumper stickers on the back.

As car ownership increases in nations like South Korea, China and India, manufacturers are looking to churn out vehicles at even lower price points; today the BBC reported that Renault-Nissan has announced a joint venture with Indian firm Bajaj to create the world’s cheapest car, at an estimated $2,500.

And while the West and even internal environmentalists shake their heads at the possibility of millions of new drivers throwing tons of CO2 up in the air, the sentiment held in the Eastern hemisphere is perhaps best reflected by China’s “you first” stance — and these nations have a point. Many Americans still drive tank-like SUVs every day, and the US is the only developed nation that has not yet ratified the Kyoto Protocol. Indeed, what pedestal do we have to stand on?

But here’s the problem: with more drivers and more roads, these booming Asian nations are unwittingly fostering an auto-culture from which it will take ages to untangle. Right now they’re feasting on the fruits that developed capitalism can afford — the luxuries that Americans have enjoyed for decades. It’s understandable that Western criticism of these trends now would draw resentment and cries of hypocrisy.

The crucial point that must be conveyed, though, is that owning a car does not constitute the good life. Yes, we’ve been driving cars for decades, and the American road trip is indeed a sweet thing. But the majority of drivers are not freewheeling travelers blasting down I-90; we shuttle to and from suburban homes in frustrated bursts. Look at the faces of drivers inching along the snarled roadways in and out of Chicago, LA, Seattle, etc. Driving is convenient only when we have no better option. If American big business and city planners had had more foresight, we’d be riding on trolleys and trains (and probably wouldn’t have an obesity epidemic).

The mayors of Asia’s biggest cities should be regarding the difficulties the US is encountering as it attempts to move away from car culture as a lesson, a cautionary tale, instead of blithely allowing cars to choke their thoroughfares. Because once you go down this road, it’s a long way coming back.

Transportation Resolution

IT IS THE RARE person who would hope to see gas prices skyrocket to $11 per gallon in the coming year, but such is the wish of Michael Barrett. The Madison-based urban geographer recently told ISTHMUS, a local weekly paper, that what would ensue would be a “cascade of Very Good Things”:

First, we might finally see the lazy asses get out of their cars and walk it off. (Their attitudes and asses, that is.) Second, those rivers of death — a.k.a. highways — would become streams of life, full of people biking, rollerblading, walking, skateboarding and cross-country skiing. Third, we could all finally breathe.”

While I may not be so extreme as to hope for a cripplingly high price of gas (the chain reaction would create a surge in energy costs and would mean prohibitive prices for air travel), I get what Barrett is saying; he’s certainly got recent evidence for the “rivers of death” claim, and I’ve often fantasized about how lovely it would be if highways were transformed into thriving bikeways.

Barrett works for Urban Thoreau, a firm that looks to shift urban infrastructure so that it fosters human interaction – that long forgotten art. One of the company’s biggest projects is pushing a “Parking Cashout” policy, which enables employees to receive a cash stipend for the cost of their company-subsidized parking space if they choose not to drive to work. Modeled after a 1992 California law that has been loosely enforced, Urban Thoreau is trying to implement the practice locally, with some success, in an effort to get people out of their cars and into fresh air.

My last trip home I realized how stifled I felt after a couple weeks of driving on a regular basis from my suburban hometown to downtown Seattle. My moments of stillness in the outdoors were the ones that made me appreciate where I was. In the same vein with Barrett’s wish, I hope that as a society we would take a collective pause and reevaluate where we’re going – and how we’re getting there.

There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work whether of the head or the hands. I love a broad margin in my life. Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in the undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveler’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time.”

Henry David Thoreau

As Long as You Ride It….

YESTERDAY MARKED THE INAUGURAL run of the South Lake Union Streetcar in Seattle, opening a 1.3 mile track in the downtown area for public use. The completion of the streetcar is the first in a string of several projects to give the traffic-choked Seattle area better transportation alternatives.

Prior to completion, the streetcar picked up the unfortunate (if logical) name, the South Lake Union Trolley – or S.L.U.T. A neighborhood coffee shop began printing t-shirts reading “Ride the S.L.U.T.,” which have been selling out. It’s unlikely that Mayor Greg Nickels was too thrilled about the acronym, though he concedes that it’s here to stay. “I don’t care what you call it,” he said, “as long as you ride it.” (P.I.)

On the more serious end, the trolley has gotten flak from the local cycling community, which argues that the embedded metal tracks are hazardous. From experience riding in the area, and in Portland and San Francisco – where tracks are much more ubiquitous – a little extra caution near the rails and you should be fine. Seattle’s Cascade Bicycle Club has pushed for future trolly tracks to take either inside lanes or the median, so riders don’t get pinched – I wholeheartedly agree.

Amid all the hubbub about the streetcar being a new viable transporation alternative, it’s also worth pointing out that the track could easily be walked from start to finish – one has to wonder how much this will really affect traffic conditions.

But the new trolley system should be looked at within its greater context; when the area’s light rail system is completed in 2009, travelers will be able to step off a plane at Seatac and be zipped from the southern suburbs to north downtown without setting foot inside a car or bus. As the Seattle area grows as both a city and tourist destination, this is a step in the right direction towards cutting carbon emissions and creating a better quality of life.

Learn more about the Seattle Streetcar.

Making the Long Haul? Get your Coffee On.

photo by yesmorelight

DESPITE WHAT THEY might tell you in drivers-ed, drinking coffee is apparently more effective than taking a nap in keeping sleepy drivers alert, according to a new study. An article in The New York Times the other day had this to say:

A driving instructor in the car counted the number of inappropriate line crossings during each driving test. Line crossings were measured because drifting over the center line or off the road causes 65 percent of sleep-related accidents.

The decaf drinkers racked up a total of 159 line crossings while drowsy, compared to just 2 line crossings during the daytime driving test. Nappers did better, crossing lines only 84 times. But surprisingly, the coffee drinkers did the best in the sleepy driving test, crossing lines a total of 27 times. [read full]

‘Where Bikes and Cars Collide’

TWO HORRIFIC AND FATAL collisions between large trucks and cyclists in Portland last month have put safety and awareness at the fore of many Oregonians’ minds, and prompted The Oregonian to create a useful interactive map of where crashes have taken place in the city between 2003 and 2006.

While Portland is one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country (and seeing the city by bike is definitely the best way to go), it pays to be aware of your surroundings – there are angry and inattentive people everywhere. I spent nearly a week in there on my bicycle, thankfully without incident, but certainly with a few inappropriate horn-honks.

If you’re traveling by bicycle, especially in an unfamiliar city, it helps to pick up a cycling map to find separate bike trails and low-traffic routes. Here’s where you can buy the one I used in Portland.

Safe travels.

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