Tuesday, July 28, 2009

For All You Alternative Transportation Naysayers Out There, This One's For You

Take a good, long look at the images above (click to enlarge).

This poster hung on the wall of the City Planning Office in of Muenster, Germany back in 2001. It depicts the amount of space needed to transport sixty people by car, bus, and bicycle. Although I think it was originally intended to operate purely on a city planning level (reducing traffic congestion), it has important implications for sustainable urbanism as well (mitigating greenhouse gas emissions). I am tempted to say more, but won't because the poster largely speaks for itself.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Portrait of the Future of Transportation Planning: Auto Lovers Beware

The questions surrounding our transportation system are some of the most intriguing and provocative questions related to the climate change dialogue. According to the Department of Transportation, vehicle-related emissions make up 28 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions in the United States, so improving automobile efficiency, increasing availability of and access to public transportation, as well as making changes to our urban structure which promote walkability and curtail automobile use have very real implications for mitigating the effects of global warming.

In many ways, my pursuit of an Urban Studies Degree originated from my interest in the transportation sector. It was my study of transportation planning and some key literature - most importantly Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What it Says About Us) - that got me thinking about how macroscopic urban development plans can influence micro-level decision making, and the tremendous potential this relationship has for positive environmental change.

One thing is for certain: our nation is addicted to oil, and along with it, our cars. But who could blame us? Our society is geared (pun intended?) to value the autonomy of automobile use, and to make matters worse we have a national urban composition that encourages this behavior. Starting after World War II, government planners established the system of interstate highways we still use today that promotes sprawl and a decentralized lifestyle. Apart from the freedom and convenience, we drive our cars as often as we do because the current urban fabric offers no viable alternative.

But how can we change our behaviors if our current system is rigged so heavily in favor of automobile use? As a society, we need to radically shift the notion that automobiles are the primary mode of transportation and create a planning paradigm where multi-modal streets (aka streets friendly to multiple uses, for example a road with a designated bus and bike lane), walkable neighborhoods, and mixed-use development become our priorities. Fortunately, officials in several major cities around the globe have taken it upon themselves to begin this transition.

As part of his PLANYC 2030 initiative, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently made a decision to promote pedestrian street access and directly undermine automobile use in Midtown Manhattan. As you may know, earlier this summer Bloomberg closed Times Square to traffic, transforming a five block section of Broadway from a chaotic bumper-to-bumper jam into a pedestrian-only plaza complete with lawn furniture (see photo above and slideshow here). In the midst of a city renowned for its traffic (and its bad drivers), this ambitious makeover of an iconic urban landmark could spell the beginning of the end for cars in the Big Apple.

A second example of city leadership favoring pedestrian priorities over those of automobiles was recently featured in this New York Times article. Four years ago, a $384 million recovery project was completed in Seoul, South Korea. This plan peeled back a major transit artery which sliced through the center of the city to reveal the Cheonggyecheon, a largely forgotten waterway that had been entombed in concrete after the Korean War. Spearheaded by then Mayor of Seoul and now President of South Korea Lee Myung-bak, this urban revitalization project brought wildlife back to the heart of the city, created a place where residents (an estimated 90,000 per day) can enjoy the green space along the banks of the stream, and restored a waterway with historical significance for South Korea. In the words of Lee In-keun, Seoul’s assistant mayor for infrastructure, “We’ve basically gone from a car-oriented city to a human-oriented city.”

The third example comes from Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic, referenced earlier. One of my favorite anecdotes from the book, Vanderbilt describes how the Traffic and Planning Office in Copenhagen devised a plan to reduce the amount of auto traffic flowing into the center of the city. Government officials decided to take action without announcing their plan to the public in a truly remarkable display of the macro-micro relationship I described above. Between 1994 and 2005, the city gradually phased out parking spaces in favor of parks and bike lanes. During this period, the total number of spaces was reduced from 14,000 to 11,500 and bike traffic surged an incredible 40 percent (today one third of commuters bike to work). Ironically, biking has become so popular in Copenhagen that the city now has a bicycle congestion problem.

These three initiatives send clear and bold statements to members of the international community, and they will hopefully lead to similar projects around the globe in the years to come. It is understandably difficult to measure how much carbon dioxide these initiatives prevent, but they are undoubtedly moving transportation in a direction that not only has less of an impact on the environment, but also improves the lives of the people living in these communities.

Our auto-centric world may very well be dissolving, city by city, block by block. We will just have to wait and see what happens…

(Note: Image 1 & 2 source: The New York Times, Image 3 source: Streetsblog.org)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

On Transforming Market Trends and the National Consciousness

Last semester as we were studying for our North American Environmental History exam, a friend of mine asked me what environmentalism meant, to which I responded, "a hyper-awareness of how everything you do affects the world around you." At the time it surprised me how easily I had come up with that definition, but I guess it has been something that I have been thinking about a lot in the past year or so. In in a simple yet comprehensive way, I think this definition captures the essence of the environmental movement. In recent months, I have begun the transition from ignorance and obliviousness to deep eco-awareness, and have altered my behaviors accordingly. From phasing out the use of plastic water bottles and the consumption of meat (yes you heard me right - as shocking as it is to myself and to those who know me well, I am pretty confident I am slowly but surely becoming a vegetarian. More to come on this decision in further postings.), to taking public transportation - or even no transportation at all - I am restructuring my lifestyle to become one that has less of an impact on the natural world.

This type of awareness is vital for the long-term success of our nation today. We need to transform the national consciousness from one of eco-ignorance to eco-awareness. It is also essential that this awareness does not sit idle, but translates into action (awareness does little good if behaviors remain constant). Today, a staggering 95 percent of the scientific community believes in climate change, but how does this number translate into action? This benchmark, identifying the problem, is only half the battle. A nationwide transition to eco-awareness can be facilitated by reliable, easily accessible information that links consumers with products that reflect their desire to reduce their impact on the environment.

Fortunately, a lot of this information is available already: Detailed, minute-by-minute energy performance consoles are installed in some high tech green buildings, allowing residents to monitor (and curb) their energy use. New cars are being outfitted with computers that can calculate and display key driving statistics, among them miles per gallon. Grocery stores are now offering more information about the food we eat, including nutritional facts, country or state of origin, organic certification, etc. Even corporate mammoths are jumping on the bandwagon – Walmart is set to unveil a “sustainability index” on all of the products on its shelves, giving shoppers an unprecedented window into the production of the goods they buy. These mutually reinforcing trends – consumers becoming more aware and demanding more sustainable products, and producers releasing more information about their goods – have the tremendous potential to influence the direction of the market in the coming years.

It is important never to underestimate the power we have as consumers to demand socially and environmentally just products. One of my favorite quotes from Food, Inc., a recent documentary which reveals the complexities and corruption of our industrialized food system, explains: “When we run an item past the supermarket scanner, we’re voting for local or not, organic or not.” The same idea can be expanded to all consumer products. Every time we buy something, we endorse the system through which that product was created. So take advantage of the information that is out there, and start voting for products which deserve our support. What do you say we facilitate the nation’s transition from eco-ignorance to eco-awareness together?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The 2009 Campus Progress National Conference

So I figure it is about time I profile the conference I attended yesterday that motivated me to start this very blog. As I mentioned in my previous post, I heard about the event, as well as Campus Progress itself, from my girlfriend Lucy who had heard about it from a fellow intern. Campus Progress is the college-focused division of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank founded in 2003 by John Podesta, former White House Chief of Staff in the Clinton Administration and recent co-chair of President Obama's transition team (aka an all around baller).

The Conference was hosted at the luxurious Omni Hotel in NW Washington DC, and began with a complimentary breakfast in a massive ballroom. Lucy and I found our seats among the other 1400 some-odd college students piling into the room. The morning plenary was dominated by Campus Progress (CP) and Center for American Progress (CAP) staff welcoming us all to their event, headlined by the CP and CAP Directors, David Halperin and John Podesta, respectively. Podesta spoke extensively about his path to the national stage (it helps to go to kindergarten with a future president of the United States), his vision for the CAP (the largest and most effective progressive organization in the nation), and his close relationship with two US Presidents.

After the morning introduction, we broke out into focus groups on different topics, including health care, climate change, human rights, labor rights, and college affordability. I attended the panel on climate change (duh!) and thought it was really interesting. The speakers were great and informative, but I thought our small group discussions were most valuable. It was amazing to engage my peers in dialogue about climate issues, effective organizing methods, and the importance of social networking.

After the morning sessions, lunch was served in the ballroom, accompanied by speeches from Van Jones (Special Advisor for Green Jobs, White House Council for Environmental Quality), Kathleen Sebelius (Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services), and John Prendergast (Co-founder of the Enough Project) and Joel Madden (activist and member of Good Charlotte). Jones, an incredible and captivating public speaker, detailed the challenges presented by climate change, and how a green economy can not only be a solution to mitigating carbon dioxide emissions, but also to lifting the nation out of recession. He spoke of the importance of connecting our renewable energy centers with our population centers.

Sebelius stepped in briefly (she had just come from, and had to return shortly to Capitol Hill), to talk about the status of the current health care legislation and about how we needed to transition from an "illness system" to a "wellness system," yet she failed to explain the role reform of industrialized agricultural and the nation's current nutrition delivery system would play in this shift.

Prendergast and Madden, quite the dynamic duo, described at length how key minerals needed for the production of our electronics (cell phones, laptops, iPods, etc.) are being mined by gangs in Africa who use rape as a weapon in the war for social control. They drew comparisons to the blood diamond situation in Sierra Leone (where gangs had previously used amputation as their method for social control) and how consumer pressure caused jewelry titans to alter their buying strategies. They both stressed the amount of power we have as consumers in our ability to dictate economic markets depending on the purchasing decisions we make. They implored us to "create a critical mass of confrontation" so that the big electronics manufacturers would be forced to change their practices. When asked by a member of the audience who were the most flagrant of the rape-electronic offenders, they replied that it was an "industry-wide issue" and all were culpable.

After the lunch presentations, we broke up into focus groups again, this time covering topics from the economy and free media, to hip-hop, threat assessment, and faith. I attended the media session moderated by Amanda Terkel, CAP deputy research director and recent Bill O'Reilly ambush journalism victim (see video here). The panelists were all very interesting and came from diverse journalism backgrounds. Media has been something in the forefront of my consciousness lately - CNN is always on at my office gym where I train every day after work, so it's kind of hard NOT to pay attention. One of the panelists, who argued in favor of "hungry journalism" ( read comprehensive and contextualized journalism) as opposed to "drive-by journalism" (read minimally investigative and devoid of perspective), articulated precisely what bothers me about CNN and other commercial media outlets (in case you're wondering, they are drive-byers). They skip almost jubilantly from topic to topic, on subjects ranging from celebrity gossip, to airline crashes, to political coups without delving below the surface or delivering comprehensive coverage. One panelist also referenced an interesting quote that my mom had told me a day earlier: the role of the media is to "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted." All in all the session was tremendously informative, and also contributed to my desire to start this blog, itself a form of free media.

Following the afternoon session, we all returned to the ballroom to hear the "big three" presenters: Daily Show correspondent John Oliver, Speaker for the House Nancy Pelosi, and Former President Bill Clinton. Let me just pause for a moment and let that resonate and also give me time to ponder referencing John Oliver in the same sentence as the other two (ahh, what the heck!?). Oliver was incredible, and barraged the eager and attentive audience with 110% of his Daily Show charm and wit. He testified to the strengths of the British public health care system ("Just look at my teeth!") and also how much of an honor it was to work alongside John Stewart every day. He admitted how far he still has to climb on the learning curve of political satire, dissuaded us from the notion that he would start his own show like Stephen Colbert, and also revealed his concerns of deportation (his visa is set to expire on Saturday). All in all, he undoubtedly brought down the house, and who's to blame him? As he put it, we are his target demographic, after all...

Pelosi ducked in briefly - she, like Sebelius earlier in the day, had to rush back to the Capitol after her address. She spoke about the "three pillars" of American society: 1) Energy, 2) Education, and 3) Health Care. She profiled the challenges she and other members of Congress faced in the weeks to come as debate on health care reform raged on. But she wanted to clarify the public option, which has come under such scrutiny lately, explaining that the new plan would not put government between you and your doctor, but rather take insurance companies OUT.

Clinton was absolutely, positively AMAZING. An eloquent and engaging speaker, Clinton urged us to get involved in solving the problems in this "very interdependent world that is inherently unstable." He explained how being a good citizen forty or fifty years ago meant simply voting and paying your taxes, but that now it was necessary to be "public servants as private citizens" who advocate for and practice innovative and progressive behaviors in our daily lives. He described the extent to which building retrofits were the real low-hanging fruit of the climate change movement and cited the recent plan to retrofit the Empire State Building, one of the few architectural symbols of the United States, as evidence of this opportunity. All in all, he argued that if we are to ever catch up with Sweden, Denmark, Germany, and the United Kingdom (the world leaders in investment in renewable energy technology), we need to rethink how we fundamentally operate as a nation and as a society. He was not shy about detailing the challenges which lay ahead, but he also made it clear that if there were any generation equipped to handle them, it was us.

All in all, the 2009 Campus Progress National Conference will be a day I remember for a long time. The speakers, the fellow participants, the discussion groups, and the panelists were all very inspiring. Lucy and I were asked today whether we learned a lot at the conference, and although there was a considerable amount of information covered, we agreed that it was the inspiration and motivation we felt by particpating in the event that was truly invaluable. I want to ride this emotional and intellectual high as long as I can, and hopefully it will aid me in my desire to save the planet and its people for years to come.

Note: All images courtesy of Campus Progress. Full album can be found here: (http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=2634592&id=10312041466)

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

When the Beginning Began...

So I have been thinking of establishing a blog for a while now, starting sometime in the last year (I honestly can't remember the exact moment) and culminating in this post, which I boldly assume people will actually want to read. I am still unclear what form this blog will take in the long run, but I hope to eventually use this page primarily as a sphere of commentary for environmental issues, policy, advocacy, etc. But I want to also warn you that I can't promise that other topics won't squeeze their way onto the page (from politics and baseball, to graphic literature and general life reflections). But perhaps most importantly, this will be a place for my friends, family, and eventual random followers (hey, it could happen!) to get updates on what I am involved in and to hopefully spend their time on something worth reading. I will be honest, this process is a lot more difficult than I anticipated, but I hope you bear with me as I find my voice on the internet (though chances are, since no one is following it yet, you will only read this original post after I have written several more...). So the reason I have chosen July 8, 2009, as the date to write my first post is because I attended the Fifth Annual Campus Progress National Conference today, and was incredibly inspired. My accumulating desire to start a blog combined with my newfound appreciation for social networking sites and online media outlets created a critical mass tonight that I simply could not ignore any longer. Today would be the day I would pop my blogging cherry.

So I had never heard of Campus Progress before my girlfriend, Lucy, sent me a link to the conference website a week ago. But the panel topics sounded interesting and the speakers were a real draw (they included former President Bill Clinton, Speaker for the House Nancy Pelosi, former Chief of Staff in the Clinton Administration and founder of the Center for American Progress John Podesta, Special Advisor for Green Jobs at the White House Council on Environmental Quality and author of The Green Collar Economy Van Jones, and last but definitely not least, Daily Show correspondent John Oliver). I was also excited about the opportunity to come together with 1000+ other college students to discuss the difficult challenges facing our nation and our globe today, and try to brainstorm possible solutions to them. The day was jam-packed and lasted for almost 11 hours, but it was worth every single minute! I imagine tomorrow will be just as packed as I participate in Youth Lobby Day (also a Campus Progress event) and descend upon Capitol Hill to engage members of Congress in discussions concerning relevant issues - my topic will be climate change. More details on both events will be sure to follow in the coming days.

So say what you will. I know this has been a pretty lame first post, but I'm warning you: The beginning has begun, the threshold has been crossed, and now (for better or for worse) there is no turning back...