Another City is Possible: Cars and Climate

Last week I taught a class at the University of Colorado for a friend.  The class is entitled Another City is Possible: Re-Imagining Detroit. She wanted me to talk about the link between cars and climate change. As usual, I didn’t finish putting the talk together until a couple of hours before the class, but it seemed like it worked out pretty well anyway. In fact, I actually got feedback forms from the class just today, and they were almost uniformly awesome to read. As if I might have actually influenced someone’s thinking on how cars and cities interact, and how cities could really be built for people. It makes me want to figure out a way to teach on a regular basis.  Here’s an outline of what I said, and some further reading for anyone interested.

What is a car?

For the purposes of this discussion, when I say “car” I mean a machine capable of moving at least 4 people at a speed of greater than 80 km/hr (50 mi/hr). This means cars are big (they take up a lot of space) and cars want to go fast (though in reality they go at about biking speed on average, door-to-door, in urban areas). Cars as we know them today are also heavy, usually in excess of 500 kg (1000 lbs) and numerous, because they’re overwhelmingly privately owned. These four characteristics in combination makes widespread everyday use of automobiles utterly incompatible with cities that are good for people. Big, fast, heavy, numerous machines are intrinsically space and energy intensive, and intrinsically dangerous to small, slow, fragile human beings.

The Takeaways:

  • Tailpipe emissions are just the tip of the iceberg — the vast majority of the sustainability problems that cars create have nothing to do with what fuel they use, or how efficiently they use it. Amory Lovins’ carbon-fiber hypercars could run on clean, green unicorn farts, and they’d still be a sustainability disaster.
  • The real problems that come from cars are the land use patterns they demand, and the fact that streets and cities built for cars are intrinsically hostile to human beings. In combination, sprawling, low-density land use and unlivable, dangerous streets functionally preclude the use of transit, walking, and biking as mainstream transportation options. In a city built for cars, you have no choice but to drive.
  • The good news is that another city is not only possible, it already exists. Very modest density (about 50 people per hectare or 10 dwelling units per acre) is enough to drastically reduce car use, and make low energy transportation commonplace. In combination with good traditional urban design, these cities are extremely livable, healthier, cheaper to maintain, much more sustainable, and much safer than our cities.
  • The bad news is Peak Oil is not going to save us. There are a whole lot of unconventional hydrocarbons out there in the oil shale of the Dakotas, the tar sands of Alberta, the ultra-heavy crude of Venezuela’s Orinoco basin, and the ultra-deep water reservoirs off the coast of Brazil, etc. We’d be crazy to burn them all, but hey, maybe we’re crazy. And even if we did run out of oil, it’s entirely possible to electrify our cars for everyday urban use, even with today’s mediocre battery technology. If we want a different kind of city, we’re going to have to choose to build it.

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Boulder Biketopia at the ULI Salon

Boulder’s newly minted chapter of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) hosted its second salon on December 6th, entitled Biketopia: Dramatically Increasing Boulder’s Bike Mode Share.  Martha Roskowski — the former head of GO Boulder, who now works on protected on-street bike facilities nationwide with Bikes Belong — outlined a plan for pushing Boulder beyond it’s status as a leading bike community in North America, and toward taking a place amongst the world’s best cities for cycling.

Why should we choose to do this?  Getting more people on bikes benefits both individuals and the community. Bikes provide inexpensive mobility for short trips, help address health issues, and reduce congestion. New studies are showing that getting more people on bikes increases the economic vitality of cities in many ways, including attracting “choice” employers and supporting local businesses. Boulder’s status as a leader in climate change can also be reinforced by a visionary approach.

While Boulder’s bike mode share is one of the best in the nation, it trails well behind leading European cities. And Boulder’s growth in bicycling has been stagnant over the past several years, by a number of measures. Boulder is no longer a national leader in its commitment and vision to increase the number of people on bikes. Chicago, San Francisco, Austin, Boston, Washington DC, Philadelphia and others are taking far more bold steps to intentionally and systematically make their communities better for bicycling.

Boulder has a choice: we can continue the current pace of slow but steady improvements in infrastructure and rely on external forces like the price of gas and personal concerns about climate change to increase bike mode share. Or, Boulder could become a new national model for a bicycle-friendly community. Boulder has the potential to dramatically increase its bike mode share, perhaps more so than any other community in the country. It has “good bones” in its off-street pathway system, its compact size, growth boundaries, culture of cycling and already large bicycling population.

Martha gave eleven suggestions for taking cycling in Boulder beyond being an “alternative” mode and toward normalizing it to the point where it’s a vital, indispensable part of our transportation system. It can be made accessible to just about anyone as it is already in much of the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, where many cities have between a quarter and half of their daily trips being made by bike.  Here’s a short summary of what she had to say, hopelessly intermingled with my own musings, since my notes are now a month old.

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A Goss Grove Neighborhood Greenway?

The Goss-Grove neighborhood is a quiet residential enclave in the center of Boulder, bounded by Canyon to the north, Arapahoe to the south, 17th St. to the west, and Folsom to the east. It’s quiet largely because it’s nearly cut off from the rest of the street network. The only through access to the area for cars is 22nd Street, which connects Canyon and Arapahoe north-south. At the same time though, the area is relatively permeable to bikes and pedestrians, with little pocket parks and community gardens making some of the north-south connections at 18th, 19th, 21st, 22nd and 23rd Streets, which all connect Arapahoe and Canyon. Running east-west, Grove Street becomes Grove Circle, connecting 15th all the way to Folsom St. for pedestrians.

Goss Grove Cut Throughs by Zane Selvans on flickr

Goss Grove Cut Throughs by Zane Selvans on flickr

If you’re willing to walk through the parking lot by James Travel and Mondo Robot, you can get all the way from the Farmer’s Market to McGuckins on very quiet streets.


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As a bicyclist, you can get through too, but it’s not designed to make it easy. With some relatively minor changes to the Grove corridor, we’d be well on the way toward creating a Neighborhood Greenway like the ones Portland, Oregon has been putting in. Streetfilms looked at them in this video:

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Making Boulder into one of Jan Gehl’s Cities for People

A couple of months ago I finished reading Jan Gehl’s book Cities for People, and I’ve seen Boulder differently ever since. I’m both more frustrated with it as it is today and more excited about what it could be in 20 years. Where before I might have been diffusely irritated by or in love with a place, I’m now explicitly aware of details that enhance or degrade its functionality for humans. I can’t recommend the book highly enough. It’s short, it’s filled with pictures, and unless you’re a die-hard motorist or collapsitarian neo-primitivist, I think you’ll find its case persuasive. You can watch him give a talk about the book in NYC on YouTube too, if you want another preview.

Copenhagen Cafe Culture by virtualwayfarer on flickr

Gehl is a Danish architect who’s lived and worked in Copenhagen for the last 40 years, designing urban spaces for human beings. His first memory of the bicycle is riding away from the city as a small boy with his father, all day and all night, to escape the Nazi occupation. In his childhood, Copenhagen was dominated by pedestrians and bicycles. By the time he’d become a young man, the city was being occupied not by an invading army, but by automobiles. He was trained as a modernist architect, in the tradition of Le Corbusier’s isolated towers surrounded by parklands and freeways — a tradition Gehl almost immediately rebelled against — but in the 1960s, few wanted to hear about cities for people. Somehow, human and humane cities were not part of society’s vision of The Future. A devastated continent was being re-built in the modernist mold, and re-designed to accommodate cars, but by the early 1970s citizens across northern Europe had begun to question that vision. A lot of the resistance to transforming Europe’s cities into automobile friendly spaces didn’t come from environmental concerns as we see them today. Rather, re-making cities to work well for cars ended up degrading the quality of urban life dramatically. Jane Jacobs said we’d either erode our cities with cars, or the cars would suffer attrition at the hand of good cities. Then the first OPEC embargo highlighted the economic risks associated with oil dependence. We chose erosion in the US, but many European cities chose attrition. Energy economics, the quality of urban life, and environmental concerns together were enough to convince these nations to re-consider their Modernist visions of the future, and they revolted against the automobile invasion.

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Preventing Bicycle Fatalities at US-36 and Violet

Ghost Bike at Violet and US-36 in North Boulder by Zane Selvans on flickr

Two bicyclists have been killed at the intersection of US-36 and Violet Avenue since 2009. The most recent was TJ Doherty, on July 24th, 2012. Both cyclists were headed southeast on US-36, and were hit by cars traveling northwest, making left turns onto Violet. In this area US-36 is just outside of Boulder’s city limits, in the county, but it’s the Colorado Dept. of Transportation (CDOT) that’s responsible for it. Looking at the aerial view below we can explore why this intersection might be particularly dangerous for cyclists.


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Northwest bound vehicles on US-36 have a dedicated left turn lane, and no obligation to stop before making their turn. The angle that Violet Ave. makes with the highway is quite oblique, meaning that it can be taken at high speed, and because US-36 has a speed limit of 55 mph in this area, cars often will take it at high speed if they don’t see any oncoming traffic.

From a southeast bound bicycle’s point of view, there’s no obviously correct place to be on the road, if they’re planning to proceed through the intersection. The shoulder on the west side of the road narrows to a few inches, and it’s to the right of a right-turn-only lane. If you ride all the way to the right, you risk a vehicle turning in front of you onto Violet. Your intent to continue through the intersection is also unclear to oncoming traffic. Most cyclists instead take a position that’s well within the right turn lane, to prevent right-turning vehicles from passing them and immediately turning right in front of them. However, this lane position still leaves their intent ambiguous to oncoming traffic. Alternatively, you might choose to straddle the line separating the through travel lane and the right turn lane. This makes the bike relatively visible, and more clearly conveys the intent to continue through the intersection, at the expense of potentially sandwiching the cyclist between right turning vehicles and very fast moving through traffic. If the cyclist instead chooses to behave exactly like a motor vehicle, moving into the through lane of traffic, the very large difference in speed between the bike and the other vehicles in that lane creates a hazard. Thus, there’s no right place for a cyclist to be on this road if they’re planning to continue through the intersection.

When we combine the unavoidable ambiguity of the through cyclist’s intent with the very high left-turning speeds of oncoming traffic, we have a recipe for disaster. A recipe which has killed two people in three years.

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Bikes and Bus Rapid Transit

20120606101450 by Zane Selvans on flickr

There’s still political wrangling to be done and funding to be found, but with a little luck we’ll see something resembling Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) coming to the US 36 corridor Real Soon Now.  I think this is great, and will make very efficient use of the infrastructure, and limited tax dollars that we’ve got to spend from the FasTracks fund, but it does pose an issue for those of us who like to combine the regional express buses with bicycle-based last-mile connections.  In the current RTD system, the regional buses have a huge amount of bicycle carrying capacity.  There are two racks on the front, as with nearly all RTD buses, but the cargo bays underneath can easily accommodate another dozen bikes.  Lots of the features that make BRT significantly better than normal buses also make them difficult to integrate with our current practice of taking our bikes along with us on the bus.  See the Transmilenio system in Bogotá as an example:

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The High Cost of Free Parking in Boulder

Antisocial Facades by Zane Selvans on flickr

Over the last year or so, I’ve been involved with the planning and design of the public space which will accompany some of the first re-developments in the Transit Village/Boulder Junction, mostly Pearl Parkway between 30th St. and the railroad tracks.  I’ve primarily given feedback as a cyclist and pedestrian — someone who uses our streets under my own power.  Even in Boulder, those of us who don’t own, and only very rarely use private motor vehicles are still unusual.  Nevertheless, the long term goal of the TVAP is to have 60% of all trips in the region done by foot, bike or transit — anything but the much loved and loathed single occupancy vehicle (SOV).  I was particularly taken by something Tim Plass said in the PLAN Boulder election forum this fall when asked to envision Boulder 30 years in the future: Every once in a while you’ll see an electric car on the road, but mostly it’ll be bikes and pedestrians and transit.  I agree with these goals; we should pursue them vigorously.  But the city being described by Plass and the TVAP is very different from the status quo today, and it’s difficult to take the steps necessary to realize it.  Sometimes I think of myself as a time-traveling constituent from this future city, describing what it is that we will want then, when the majority of people aren’t driving a private car everywhere they go.  One thing that I’m confident we won’t want is so much “free” parking.

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Revisiting Junction Place, the TVAP and Multi-Way Boulevards

Antisocial Facades by Zane Selvans on flickr

Last fall I and other representatives from Community Cycles participated in a discussion with the city and various stakeholders regarding upcoming redevelopment along Pearl Parkway.  I wrote about the experience and the Transit Village Area Plan (TVAP) more generally from the perspective of a human-powered urbanist.  Mostly, we looked at different possible streetscapes for Pearl Parkway between 30th and the railroad tracks.  The property at 3100 Pearl Parkway is slated to be developed in the near future, as a 320 unit rental apartment complex, and as one of the first major developments in the area plan.  The city is interested in experimenting with novel street treatments in order to try and make the place special and attractive.  Community Cycles got involved largely because the TVAP “Connections Plan” had, with minimal fanfare, superseded the Transportation Master Plan (TMP) and removed the bike lanes which had long been planned along Pearl Parkway in favor of off-street only infrastructure.  We felt that this change was not necessarily in the best interest of cyclists, and wanted to ensure that whatever did end up getting built would be safe and efficient.

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The Making of Bicycle Things

Over the last two years or so, I’ve fallen in love with dirt road riding.  In the Sierra Madre and Barrancas del Cobre of Chihuahua, the fire roads of the San Gabriels in SoCal, and now criss-crossing the continental divide here in Colorado and Wyoming.  I’ve pushed my trusty Long Haul Trucker further into the dirt than it really wanted to go.  I love the quiet, the near total lack of motorized traffic.  The long, rhythmic heavy breathing of going up up and away, focused on staying in motion, focused on staying upright.  And so I’m building a new bike, more dedicated to vanishing into the hills, and crawling along the vast majority of the world’s ways and roads, which are unpaved.  I’m calling it a Trohlloff (a Surly Troll frame fitted with a Rohloff hub) inspired by Cass Gilbert’s most recent steed (Bryan and I just happened to ride part of his route through Mexico last spring, and I’ve been following him, mesmerized, ever since).

I’m fascinated by supply chains and the globalization of nearly everything, and I have all but sworn off non-German bike parts, as they seem to be of consistently excellent functional design and build quality (vastly better than their US competitors), and I think Germany does a much better job than most countries with their labor and environmental practices (again, including the US).  So it’s interesting to me to learn more about where some of these bits that I buy on the interwebs actually come from.  Two examples, in the YouTube format.

The Rohloff Speedhub is an archetypal Made in Germany product: fabulously expensive (it costs considerably more than an entire brand new Long Haul Trucker!) and even more fabulously well made.  To celebrate the manufacture of the 100,000th Speedhub, the company recently threw a party and invited anybody who had ridden their hub more than 60,000 km.  A number of participants had ridden theirs more than 100,000 km.  Even some of their first batch of 20 prototype hubs had clocked up this many kms, and were still running strong!  To date, they have never had a hub fail in the field.  This is a testament to the power of good design.  Heirloom design.  Barring loss or theft, I won’t be surprised if the hub outlasts my legs, and this makes the up-front investment worthwhile.  It only makes sense to use highly paid manual labor when the value of the labor embodied in the product isn’t swamped by the value of the energy and materials that make it up.  When relatively low-skilled factory workers have good healthcare and lots of vacation time products have to be extremely well designed, and/or made from intrinsically expensive materials.

Schwalbe is another German company, and is the only tire manufacturer in the developed world that only makes bicycle tires.  Their tires are very well designed, durable, and unsurprisingly, expensive (a set of two will cost you $100 or so).  Interestingly, only the design of the tires takes place in Germany.  They’re actually manufactured in long time rubber producer Indonesia… by a Korean company!

I wonder what Rohloff’s thinking is behind keeping their entire operation in Germany.  Do they believe it’s impossible to train a foreign workforce to be as exacting as their German one, even with strict quality control measures?  Or is it more of a craftsman style operation, kept at home for aesthetic reasons?  I suspect the latter.

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Automotive Death Revealer

We hide many of the financial costs of our automobile culture, such as the exorbitant true price of parking, but just as much, we hide the cost in human lives.  By far, the most common source of violent traumatic injury and death in the developed world is our beloved motor vehicle.  In the US alone, every year 10 times as many people are killed by cars than were killed in the World Trade Center attacks, 10 times as many as have been killed in the Iraq war.  Every two years we kill more Americans with vehicles than we did in all of the Vietnam war.  Every three years, more than WWI, every ten, more than WWII.

Why do we deem these losses acceptable?  They aren’t inevitable.  The UK, Iceland, Sweden, Japan, the Netherlands, Germany, Ireland and Switzerland all have vehicular death rates less than half of our 12/100,000 people per year (which puts us on par with Bangladesh…).  We can re-design and re-build our cities and our streets to avoid this carnage, for a fraction of the cost of our ill-fated War on Terror, and many other governmental actions supposedly undertaken in the name of keeping us safe.  Safe from threats which do not really exist, in a statistical sense, but which loom large in our monkey minds.

Would it be different if we left the corpses out on the roads to rot?  If we hung the out skeletal remains as a ghastly reminder?  Some software developers in Moscow are trying to do just that, with a mobile augmented reality app called the Death Revealer:

(via Copenhagenize)

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