Wednesday, June 30, 2010

We Need Our Oil... (Part 2)

Yeah, yeah, yeah, so I said I wouldn't say much about the Gulf oil spill last time, but I found some interesting posts which complement the point I was making last week about how deeply embedded fossil fuels are in American culture, and how design can dictate our mobility choices.

The first is an article by Jonathan Hiskes of Grist entitled, "Can we just drive less after the Gulf spill? If only it were so easy..." Hiskes comments on interviews of gas-station customers conducted by NPR reporter Brian Mann. Mann concludes that despite the fact that many customers have been very concerned about the spill, "they also don't see a real connection between the spill in the Gulf and the decisions they're making about the cars and trucks they drive, and the number of times they fill up the tank in the week." Hiskes is quick to point out what I was getting at last week, which is sometimes (oftentimes?) Americans lack viable alternatives to automobile transportation, especially in a place like semi-rural upstate New York where these customers were interviewed. None of what they're saying suggests they don't understand the connection between their consumption of oil and the disaster in the Gulf, he says, "They're saying they lack good alternatives to driving. That's the real problem: Our cities and towns (and lives) are built around the assumption that we'll be driving our own cars and trucks to get where we need to go."

Don't believe that urban design and car use go hand-in-hand? Check out the following graphic:

Also linked from Hiskes' piece, this graph from Left for LeDroit depicts the relationship between pre-autocentric design in the Washington DC area and the ability of residents in these places to forgo car ownership. As you can clearly see, in the neighborhoods established before the rise of car culture it is possible to get around without an automobile. Hiskes concludes:

Conversely, people aren't going to walk or bike when amenities are too far away. They're not going to ride mass transit where it doesn't exist. They're not going to buy electric cars when they're not affordable, and when we don't have a network of charging stations. The way to help people drive less is to give them alternatives.

So if it is impossible to avoid car travel in some areas of the country, what else can people do in these places to stick it to BP? Boycotting BP is unfortunately not as straightforward as simply not fueling at their stations. Quite seriously, they have their hands in everything. As Ronald White of the LA Times reports, "Few foreign companies have ever become as deeply rooted in the U.S. economy as BP." Chris MacDonald of The Business Ethics Blog has even called a BP boycott "futile and unethical."

So even though tempers are hot right now and we want some sense of immediate retribution, we must shift our attention to longer-term strategies like investment in renewable energy technologies and related infrastructure, as well as legislation to promote this shift and hold the oil companies responsible for their actions. A little good urban design never hurt anyone either, but again this is obviously a long-term strategy. It took a decades for the oil companies to obtain the power they now have, and it will take a sustained, concentrated effort if we are ever to defeat the monster that we helped create.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

We Need Our Oil...

I'm not here to say much about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I've kept quiet since the Deepwater Horizon sank almost two months ago today, and to be perfectly honest, there has been so much written and broadcast about it in the interim that any more would be beating a dead horse, or a dead pelican/sea turtle/sperm whale as the case my be. (Too soon? Yeah, I think so).

Also I spent the first week or so of the disaster glued to my TV and laptop, hoping for some shred of good news, but when that good news never came I did what any other sane person would do when trying to rationalize that which cannot be rationalized: I disassociated myself from it emotionally. There have been too many conflicting feelings bouncing around in my head to tease out a coherent narrative or opinion even if I wanted to. So let's keep it simple, shall we?

I came across the following video a few weeks ago and I think it sums up the situation in the Gulf pretty nicely:

Aside from being adorable and pretty darn funny there's an important take-away at the end after the CEO's faux change of heart. As justification for doing nothing to help those who are suffering, he tells Cooper, "It's f**king oil man, they'll need us again." As sad as this is, I can't help but agree. Over the last hundred years or so, we've built our society on a foundation whose success and stability depends on oil, and lots of it. This is also one of the reasons I actually don't believe this oil spill will have any measurable impact on investment in renewable energy technologies and the like. Oil (and the oil industry for that matter) is too entrenched in our way of life to disappear overnight, even in the face of the current catastrophe wreaking havoc on the ecosystems and local economies of the Gulf.

There's one more noteworthy nugget in the video above, and that's the message that comes up on the screen at the very end of the clip. In case you missed it, it read: "You're not mad enough to not drive your car." (Which also relates well to a political cartoon I came across in Newsweek a few days ago)

Though this perceived consumer hypocrisy is a closely related matter, and my support for consumer-based activism is well documented throughout this blog, to me this falls under a slightly different category precisely because of the role that oil plays in our lives today. In many cases there is only so much we can do to limit our consumption of it. What if there are no alternatives to driving our cars from Point A to Point B? (And in many places across the country, there are no alternatives, believe me). We can be as angry as we want at BP and still be justified in filling up the tank and driving to work because we live in a broken system that needs much more attention before these types of behaviors can be changed, and these types of judgments levied appropriately. (If you think this is a cop-out let me know and we can talk about it.)

For now we need our oil, we need our oil, and there is no escaping that reality. Yes, a transition away from fossil fuels is currently underway, but it has been painstakingly slow and it will take much more than an oil spill, even a really really REALLY bad one to accelerate that process.

I said I wasn't going to say a lot about the oil spill and here I've rambled on for far too long. Alright, that's all for today - I'm off to try and find myself some of that marmalade...

Friday, June 11, 2010

We're Stickin' with LA, and Cars Still Don't Rule the Road

Two weeks ago I posted a video by Ross Ching depicting the streets of Los Angeles devoid of automobile traffic, which created an equally eerie and visionary display of what life would be like without our primary form of transportation.

This time, I've found something a little different. As you'll see in the following creative transformations of our beloved built environment, the cars remain but much of the infamous LA asphalt does not.

La Cienega Blvd and 3rd Street (Before)

(And after)

Who is the wizard behind this disappearing act? His name is David Yoon, a self proclaimed "urban planning geek" curious enough to investigate the question: Could the entire mood of a neighborhood depend on something as simple as street width?

Look at the following images and answer that yourself.

Rodeo Drive and Dayton Way (Before)

(And after)

Third Street Promenade (Before)

(And after)

One of the reasons these images are so powerful is because of the emotional response one has when looking at them. Wide streets are alienating physically and socially, not only limiting pedestrian mobility but also making it more difficult to meet with friends and even have basic interactions with other city goers. These images play with our impulses, as our reactions to the dichotomy displayed by them can be reasonably attributed to personal experiences we've had in similar spaces.

On his blog, Yoon describes how his work exposes the asphalt elephant in the room, so to speak, and how we got into this mess in the first place:

As a writer, street-narrowing to me represents an act of fictionalization, with fiction itself being an attempt to make sense of the randomness life flings our way. The grander absurdities of Los Angeles have already been well documented — its optimistically-named enclaves, phantom star maps — but its smaller, more micro-level oddities go mostly unnoticed: sunning at an outdoor cafe just steps from the edge of a six-lane, 50mph road; eyeing the 30-second countdown when crossing an intersection; bidding farewell to friends after dinner in dreary parking lots.

There's a yearning for a more human scale out there, and a growing realization that hey, this world wasn't created by some petulant, eight-armed Deus Urbanus but by people — ordinary people, struggling to make the best design decisions they could. Los Angeles, located at Manifest Destiny's terminus and born from a mad Levittown landgrab amid giddy postwar prosperity, was not designed badly per se; it was never really designed to begin with, at least not in a coherent fashion.

Yoon also hopes that his work will spark a debate about how we can further reimagine our cities and reinvent these broken and isolating design practices, hearkening back to a question I have asked myself many times before. If design dictates how we interact with the built environment, and the extensive infrastructure now in place has contributed to so many of the problems we face today (environmental degradation, social inequality, etc.) then what can we possibly do with all of that asphalt and concrete to improve the situation? Unfortunately we can't just slice out the middle of every major boulevard and reassemble the remaining pieces as Yoon has done. There may be some ways to adapt what exists to achieve different outcomes, but that discussion must be reserved for another day. For now, let's consider Yoon's work as a vivid look into what's possible through responsible urban design, and the reactions we have to it as the proof that design matters to each and every one of us.

For a full map of all of his LA transformations (as well as images and the significance of each one), click here.