Category Archives: Cruising Across the Atlantic 2009

Talking Surface Travel with KPFA

I was on KPFA’s Terra Verde show hosted by Adam Greenfield last Friday. talking about surface travel, the Arco/BP protests, and what regular people can do in the face of environmental collapse.  Listen here:

http://kpfa.org/archive/id/62134

If anyone finds out what the past tense of ‘dive’ is, please let me know ;)

Amtrak to San Francisco: Community on the Rails

I got back to Union Station from my walk around Chicago with about 15 minutes to spare, and for the next 14 minutes struggled to liberate my luggage from the electronic lockers, which maddeningly refused to recognise my fingerprint.   At the very last moment as they were closing the gate, the locker popped opened. I dashed for the train, found a seat, and settled in for the next 48 hours, ready to update my blog and read David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries cover to cover.

Of course things rarely work out the way you think they will.   After meeting my seat mate Alexei, a Russian-Canadian medical student from Pennsylvania, I walked around the train and met a number of other interesting people- people I ended up having long conversations with over the next couple of days.  And, as a result neglecting David Byrne and my laptop (as you might have guessed as this trip took place a month ago now!)

The Rocky Mountains

Nice Japanese guys we met, enjoying the view

Writing my Masters dissertation about the prerequisite conditions that humans need to develop healthy social networks has made me notice when these circumstances exist- and when they don’t.  In the midst of a red wine- fuelled late night conversation in the observation car with new friends, I realised (again) that long distance trains provide the ideal circumstances for community to flourish.   Such community as was never seen in the rushed, kerosene fuelled world of aviation.  From the cornfields west of Chicago, to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, we stared out the window and talked about what we saw.

It’s a slow ride, but the view is fascinating, and everyone seems to have the time to talk.  A woman named Amanda boarded the train in Denver- Alexei and I started to chat to her and the conversation inevitably turned to climate change (the coal trains rolling by must have had something to do with it).  It’s incredible that people still parrot the fossil fuel industry line on climate change, in spite of international scientific consensus.  I suspect that the emotional pain of accepting that we are currently destroying this beautiful planet is too great to bear.  Plus, the psychological mechanisms that perpetuate denial around our addictive relationships with energy are easily accessible- just switch on Fox “News”!!

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Other highlights of the trip included a staggering sunrise over the Nevada desert, crossing into California as an early season snowstorm hit the Sierras, and a nice chap from Tahoe sharing his special chocolate chip cookies with us.  Welcome to California!

Watching the wreckage of a freight train derailment that had occurred a few weeks back  (Glenwood Canyon, Colorado)

Fall colours- (Glenwood Canyon)

Sunrise over the Nevada Desert

An October Blizzard in the Sierra Nevada- welcome to California

Passing time watching DVD’s and offending everyone in the observation car with the naughty language in ‘Stepbrothers.’  I blame Kate, who got on at Reno and led us astray!

As we crossed the Bay Bridge with the City’s skyline in the background, reflecting off the puddles left by the recent storm, I realised how much I had missed San Francisco over the last three years, and how much I was going to appreciate re-acquainting.

Chicago

Downtown Chicago

I left the green shoots and corporate doublespeak behind in New York City, and hopped on the Lakeshore Limited to Chicago.   As you can see from the video below, a journey of contrasts- from the stunning Hudson River Valley to the industrial estates of Gary Indiana- sprawling complexes of chemical processing units- manufacturing bipolyphenals or engine lubricant or sink cleaner or twinkies or something you probably use every day.  So stop buying it already.  You don’t want to be be responsible for this mess believe me.   Note the school buses parked right at the end of the complex.

This very strange fountain was actually a video screen. I guess this is art or something

When foraging for wild food, consider downtown Chicago as your source for fresh (though slightly polluted) dino kale

Arrest- really? I mean I can understand maybe...a ticket, but arrest? Imagine putting your grandmother in cuffs cause she's afraid of the SUV's on the road. Maybe someone's grandma got mowed down by a cyclist on the pavement- er sidewalk. If only the response to car deaths were as forthright.

I thought I was back in the UK for a minute. They even got the patio heaters in there- very authentic!

A productive community garden growing out of a formerly vacant lot provided Chicagoans with an alternative to tasteless supermarket produce.

Our four wheeled friends were treated to prime residential space in these buildings- in fact the first 15 floors!

I found this crazy looking fungi in a planting strip in the Lincoln Park neighbourhood- showing that nature can thrive even in a large city- if given half a chance.

Walk 21: Pedestrian Blackjack Claptrap or Sustainable Transport Agenda?

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I was invited to present my research Driven to Excess, on motor traffic and neighbourhood social decay, at the Walk 21 conference in early October.   The conference was inspiring, if a little corporate.  In particular, the choice to invite a speaker from the Global Road Safety Partnership, an auto industry front group, rang alarm bells.    It was great though to be able to meet the people behind much of the research that I had read as part of my Transport Planning Masters program at UWE.   People like Daniel Sauter, who together with Marco Huettenmoser conducted research on the social impact of various speeds of traffic, an important addition to the literature.

Leinberger and Aspirational Housing

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Christopher Leinberger, a visiting fellow of the Brookings Institute, spoke about the emerging public preference for walkable urban environments compared to driveable suburban layouts.  He discussed the ‘walk score’ from 0-100 that real estate agents are increasingly using in the states to identify walkable residential neighbourhoods, where 0-20 represents the need to drive anywhere for your daily needs, and 100 represents walkable corner shop tree-lined urban utopia.  Apparently 1 walk score point now represents $500- $3000 in value on a new house.  And this insatiable demand for walkable urban housing units in the United States is forecast to increase by 56 million by 2025 (!!!).

Leinberger spoke about how television provides a glimpse into the kind of residential living that our culture desires.   In the 1950’s and 60’s it was all shows based in the suburbs- Leave it to Beaver, Brady Bunch, Addams Family etc.  People wanted a large yard and detached housing. That has largely been replaced by the dense urban ideal, represented by Seinfeld, Sex and the City, and (blech!) Friends.  The dwindling exurbs of California, foreclosed and emptying of people, are the outward manifestation of this aspiration.   Somewhere deep down, we can intuitively sense the type of urban planning that is killing us.

The American Love Affair Cools- Industry Responds

With the warming to dense, urban, walkable environments, there has been a corresponding cooling of the love affair with the automobile- particularly among the young generation- those born in the 80’s and 90’s.  If this is happening in LA, as reported in the LA Times, don’t doubt for a second that something significant is occurring.

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Good- then start manufacturing streetcars and bicycles!

All this combined with the recession has likely generated not a little bit of panic in the auto industry boardrooms.   Interestingly, Toyota has just launched its ‘beyond cars’ advertising campaign.   This is what car companies do when their focus groups start talking about bicycles….they try to convince us they’re not selling cars- they’re selling all the things that cars have taken from us, like “local lunches, social networks, safer kids, clean drinking water, etc.”  A page out of the official corporate greenwash manual to be sure.

“The Global Road Safety Partnership”

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The "Global Road Safety Partnership" at Walk 21

Speaking of a desperate industry, needing to associate itself with the walkable communities movement…..for the final plenary session, the conference organisers invited none other than former Daimler Chrysler employee Kathleen Elsig of the “Global Road Safety Partnership”, an organisation set up by the World Bank and car companies to influence the global road safety agenda.  Not too unlike the programs the tobacco industry funds to discourage teens from taking up smoking.   Lots of good pr allowing them to unload millions of cars onto roads in the global south that aren’t prepared for them.   As a result, millions of vulnerable road users will be maimed or killed every year so that Daimler Chrysler can make a buck.

Just to make sure I’m not getting all hot and bothered over nothing here, I did a search of the academic literature.  Something interesting came up in the respected academic journal Injury Prevention, entitled Car manufacturers and global road safety: a word frequency analysis of road safety documents- showing that the GRSP attempts to de-emphasize lower speeds and discussion of the safety of walkers and cyclists.

Here is an excerpt from the research:

“After the establishment of the GRSP, there were some concerns that car makers would be unlikely to promote initiatives that conflict with their commercial interests. Our analyses provide little reassurance in this respect. For example, whereas the World report emphasizes the importance of speed reduction, particularly to promote the safety of pedestrians, a recommendation that is based on strong evidence, the GRSP documents emphasize driver training and safety education campaigns, which is contrary to the available research evidence.

Compared to (the World Health Organisation’s) World report on road traffic injury prevention, the GRSP road safety documents were substantially less likely to use the words speed, speed limits, child restraint, pedestrian, public transport, walking, and cycling, but substantially more likely to use the words school, campaign, driver training, and billboard.

In other words, in response to a health crisis where 30,000 people get seriously injured every day, where mostly poor, mostly brown, mostly self-propelled people get hit by cars, the industry- through its front group the GRSP- advocates not for policies that are proven to keep children’s hearts beating in this hostile motor-filled world of ours, but for programs that are unlikely to affect car sales or the dominance of drivers on public roads.  Not to be dramatic about it or anything.  But to prevent the heartbreak of a parent just one time. One less car sold. Twenty seconds in the journey of a driver.  These things make a difference, but to the car industry the risk of allowing auto-hegemony to slip is apparently not worth it.  The GRSP has also been scrutinised by the always vigilant George Monbiot.

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At the very least, a mistake on the part of the Walk 21 conference organisers to invite her.  At the worst, a dangerous willingness to provide a platform to a group that lobbies against peer-reviewed evidence, putting millions of brown, voiceless people in harm’s way just to sell a few more million set of wheels.  Hardly the kind of image the conference needs as it tries to include the majority world, while inducing a new generation of expense account consultants, city planners, and starry-eyed urbanists to shell out for 2010 and fly thousands of miles to pat each other on the back and eat fancy corporate-funded hors d’oeuvres.

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Kathleen Elsig

When it came time for questions, I gulped down a sushi roll, walked up to the microphone and asked, “Ms. Elsig, do you think an effective strategy in the fight against the global road safety pandemic would be to sell fewer cars?” A muttering rippled through the hundreds in the audience- how would a representative of the auto industry answer this one? She answered, “well that’s a loaded question…..hah hah hem hah….local communities should develop their own sustainable transport plans blah blah….”   So thank you, Ms. Elsig I’ll take that as a yes.  Nice to know we have you on the record on that matter….

Steve Heminger Maintaining Tremendous Carbon
Steve-Heminger

A ghost from my Bay Area bicycle advocacy days, Steve Heminger, Executive Director of the San Francisco Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission (the MTC), gave the plenary talk on the Thursday about how (NEWSFLASH!) carbon is an important consideration for transportation planning in Northern California (41% of CO2 emissions are from transport in the Bay Area, compared with 14% globally) .   And something about how pedestrian planning was about people stepping in doggie doo, and how cars run over not only the poo but the dog as well.  Subsequent chuckles of semi-comprehension from the audience.  (Did he just make a joke about dead pets?  Cringeworthy…)

Steve showed a pie chart of how the Bay Area spent its transportation funds, with more than 80% going to maintenance and operations, and how the burden of maintaining the region’s highway system grows more onerous each year.   Of course it’s not helping our carbon emissions that 10% of the region’s federal funding goes toward expanding those highways, placing a progressively greater burden on planning agencies.

He went on to moan a bit about how the carbon reductions for the transport sector seemed insurmountable, but boasting about how the Bay Area was at least beginning to worry about the problem.  Yes but, continuing to expand the system that we desperately need to begin to wind down would make it more difficult, wouldn’t it Steve?   There was the sense from his talk that all was fine and dandy with our current transport system, if only we could deal with those pesky carbon emissions.

So, I hear now from sources in the Bay Area, that under the leadership of Heminger, the MTC has scuttled its climate protection initiative that would have funnelled money into non-motorized projects and re-channelled it into Heminger’s dirty little baby- a ‘freeway performance initiative.’

So much for bold leadership in a time of crisis.

This is really a reflection of the ideological position held by the elected officials that make up the MTC- that Earth’s atmosphere is a troublesome burden better put off for another day- kinda like the US/ UK attitude toward the Copenhagen conference.   The truth of course, as many people are realising on their own- is that climate presents us with an opportunity to really kick the fossil fuel habit once and for all- and the dangerous, polluted, noisy, and anti-social streets that result from it.  Real green shoots, signs of spring, not corporate false-solution offset it to another day empty greenwash.

It’s not our current government’s fault that the decision was made decades ago to give the green light to personal motoring, but it is their cowardice to admit we were wrong that is hurtling us ever closer- making it more and more likely ever day that the eventual outcome will be catastrophic- perhaps terminal- for our human species.

A good reason to walk in the street I’d say….

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The Greenwash:

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-From Toyota’s “Beyond Cars” Greenwashing Campaign

The Reality:

“The street is quite anonymous- we only know our immediate neighbours”

“Our 4-year old girl has a constant cough and we limit the amount of time she spends outside…..we’re constantly breathing in pollution”

-From my research in Bristol with residents of Muller Rd (21,000 cars/ day)

Spring in New York

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Washington Square Park (from an NYU stairwell)

After disembarking from the cruise ship and all its excesses, I spent a couple of days in Brooklyn, four days in Vermont and New Hampshire, and then returned to the East Village in Manhattan for four days of the Walk 21 Conference at NYU.

You might be asking yourself, Spring?   Isn’t it Fall?  And yes you would be right.  But before you accuse me of getting my seasons horribly muddled, let me explain.   When I arrived, there was the sense that something new was afoot in New York City.  That the long, frigid, and hostile winter of relentless and dehumanising domination of motor traffic in our public spaces was slowly beginning to thaw.  The warming climate itself contributing to a reawakening of the appreciation of pubic space, and with it, a new possibility of self-propelled transport through the densest urban environment in the richest nation on Earth.

Instead of cursing the ‘snow’ all around, (as my inner cynic urges me to do), I decided to spend some time taking a closer look at the ‘green shoots’ where New York has decided that- oi vey- perhaps it went overboard in accommodating motor vehicles and that there may be social (and economic) value in remaking sterile asphalt dead zones into thriving social spaces.   There’s been a lot written about what New York City has been doing over the last couple years, so I won’t belabour the point, but it was really exciting to see firsthand.

Broadway

The Greening of Broadway

The Greening of Broadway

All along Broadway, the NYC Dept. of Transportation (DOT) has transformed former motor space using an inexpensive surface treatment of pebbledash and green paint to reclaim former car territory.  Beach chairs and tables are interspersed with new plants and trees.   Amazing how effective this is.  It shows how well trained we are most of the time, yielding space to cars just because it’s asphalt colored and has white and yellow lines on it.  Drivers also behave well in this new order- very rarely do their tires seem to stray onto these new areas, even when not protected by bollards.  Good drivers- you get a pat on the head, and a biscuit!

Street Life on Broadway

Street Life on Broadway

Times Square

It's about time!

It's about time!

The pedestrianisation of Times Square has perhaps received more coverage than any of the other improvements and somehow the city managed to make the new space just as gaudy as the flashing billboards surrounding the square.  Using the same design as used along Broadway- except the large dots are red instead of green, the effect is appropriately amusement park themed.

This same formula has been followed in a number of NYC neighbourhoods, generating quite an international buzz, which Mayor Bloomberg and the NYC DOT commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, as well as the campaign groups Transportation Alternatives and the Limewire mogul Mark Gorton funded Livable Streets Initiative can take appropriate degrees of credit.  Really though, it was the people of New York- the grassroots- who demanded action, and once it began, resoundingly voted with their feet.  According to the DOT, as soon as the chairs were installed, there was a rush of people who came to sit in them.  Citizens enjoying the new public space:  reading, chatting, drawing, or just watching the world go by.   Clearly New Yorkers have been deprived of adequate open space for too long and a huge latent demand has built up, beginning to be satisfied by the courageous and timely transport planning at the DOT.  Healthy Cities- 1  Carmageddon- 0

Ninth Avenue Bike Lanes

A bike lane my mom would ride

A bike lane my mom would ride

The 9th Ave. bike lanes are another example of where New York is re-allocating space from cars to green modes of transportation.  Though I didn’t get a chance to ride them, I did observe how they work and they have indeed transformed the look and feel of this formerly motor dominated street.   They’ve prioritised cycling, made crossings shorter for pedestrians, and softened the streetscape with new plantings.  I was skeptical of how left turning cars would interact with cyclists, but this seems to have been addressed through the use of dedicated signal phases, as has been done- after much lobbying- in San Francisco where Masonic crosses the Panhandle Path.

The High Line

Getting above it all on the High Line...

Getting above it all on the High Line...

Another reclamation of public space- in this case from abandoned railroad to pedestrian- has occurred in the Chelsea district, where an elevated rail line has begun a transformation into a walking path and native species oasis.  It really is great to see this project come to fruition.  When I worked for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in San Francisco at the beginning of the decade, I received a call one morning.  “Hi this is Ed Norton, and I’m interested in getting involved in the High Line project in New York.”   I said, ‘Oh hi.’  He said, “Yeah this is Edward Norton the actor…”  I said (totally ignorant of who he was), ‘ok well you can contact our east coast office at this number….”   Sorry Ed- I hadn’t seen Fight Club yet and didn’t know who you were.   Anyway, thanks for your support of the project.  No doubt the involvement of celebrities like you was instrumental in making the project happen.

And now for the feature presentation...the street!

And now for the feature presentation...the street!

As part of the project NYC Parks in cooperation with the Friends of the High Line have built what appears to be an amphitheater with wooden benches where people can sit and gaze at the traffic going by below.  Not exactly thrilling, unless you are an urban studies nerd like me, though it seems to be a popular place to sit and relax.

Reclining chairs along the High Line lead to socializing

Reclining chairs along the High Line lead to socializing

Further on, there are wooden benches that were built to roll sideways on the old rails until they realized that people could get their fingers pinched.  So they fixed the wheels in place.  Oh health and safety, don’t we love thy inconsistent application?   Do they know the thousands of metal boxes rolling around the city can result in worse things than pinched fingers?  Perhaps they could apply the same treatment to them as well.  Denver boots all around!

Industrial heritage.....green future

Industrial heritage.....green future

The plan is to extend the conversion of the High Line, creating a mile and a half traffic free walking artery above the noise, danger and fumes of the street.   A glimpse of what the streets below could become one day…

On the Level Blog approves....

On the Level Blog approves....

I love NY!

I love NY!

Cruise Ship on the Hudson

Lady Liberty

Lady Liberty

We woke up at six am, rolled groggily out of bed and headed up to the deck, where a line of tourists were snapping madly at the Statue of Liberty. The lady herself was bathed in the pale morning light, welcoming our huddled, shivering masses to the states.  As we headed upriver on the Hudson toward the Manhattan Cruise Terminal at 51st St. familiar landmarks came into view- the hole left by the destruction of the World Trade Center, the New Yorker building, and the familiar centers of Manhattan: Midtown and Downtown.  We had arrived!

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Dawn over Manhattan

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Looking back on downtown…..only 30 minutes to go before we disembark!

Halifax, Nova Scotia

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Hanging out on Spring Garden Rd. a studenty area in Halifax

I’m back in California now, dreadfully behind on the blog entries.  I’ll be updating these over the course of the next week or so….

Unfortunately the winds were too high for the harbormaster in St. John’s to allow a big cruise ship to pull into the narrow harbour entrance, so we missed Newfoundland, somewhere I’ve wanted to visit since I saw the Shipping News with Kevin Spacey.  Lovely and bleak.  Oh well, something to look forward to I suppose.

Instead of one day in St. John’s and one day in Halifax, we had two days and one night in Halifax.  When we stepped off the ship, it was immediately obvious we were back in North America.  The low density built environment, wide streets, the small green street signs, and huge hulking SUV’s that have apparently emerged under the rock of high gasoline prices, all welcomed us back to the most profligate part of our planet.

I had been in touch with Ecology Action, an environmental lobby organisation for Nova Scotia, and they invited me to come and present my research, Driven to Excess, at one of their lunchtime events.   About 17 of us squeezed into Ecology Action’s small kitchen, including a Halifax councilmember and a number of transport policy staff from local government.   They told me that my research will help them make the case for improvements to transit and non-motorized facilities in the province, which was nice to hear.

Thanks again to Jen Powley at Ecology Action for hosting me and good luck reforming Halifax transport policy!

Presenting my research at Ecology Action

Presenting my research at Ecology Action