Category Archives: Livable Streets

TOP KILL: SHUT DOWN BP/ ARCO IN SF THIS FRIDAY

Is your car REALLY worth this?

This is a protest I’m helping to organize with some friends.  If you are in the Bay Area, come join us this Friday.  And SPREAD THE WORD.  Link to Facebook page here.

TOP KILL: PARTY TO SHUT DOWN BP/ ARCO IN SF

DON’T BOYCOTT BP- BOYCOTT ALL OIL

Friday, June 11th 5:30pm Arco station Fell and Divisadero

Are you as frustrated as we are about the ecological crisis in the Gulf?  Watching powerless as oil coats countless birds and marine mammals- who did nothing to deserve the pain and suffering that is being inflicted on them by big oil.    When it comes down to it, the corporations responsible for this mess care as much about wildlife as they do about you and I.

Even with the best minds and technology on the planet, humans are powerless to cap what has been unleashed.  And we will be similarly helpless in the face of a planet warming dangerously out of control.

All anyone can do in response to such a horrific situation is to plant the seeds that might lead to a better future.  This is a call out for people to plant those seeds in San Francisco on June 11th.

In San Francisco, the cheap oil at the Arco station (owned by BP) has been luring drivers for years, creating long queues of cars that obstruct the Fell St. bicycle lane, the only level cross town bicycle route, endangering people who have chosen a more benign method of transportation.  On Friday, we will turn a hostile place into a safe green pocket park.  But we need your help!

Bring along a potted plant, old tires, a tree, a bench- anything to create a green and safe space where now cyclists fight for their survival every day.

The corporation cares as much for the suffering of the birds of Louisiana as it does about the cyclist who faces injury or death having to swerve around cars lined up for cheap gas in the bike lane.  On Friday we will stand with the pelicans, turtles, and dolphins being hurt by the spill, realizing that if we fail to stop our fossil fuelled nightmare, that we will not be far behind them.

The corporations are the criminals, but we are the addicts that perpetuate the damage. It’s time to shut down BP here in San Francisco and send a message to the government, the corporations and well-meaning people who don’t even realize they are addicted to oil.

Enough is enough.

DON’T BOYCOTT BP.  BOYCOTT ALL OIL COMPANIES!

NO MORE SPILLS. NO MORE CLIMATE DAMAGE.

ALL YOU ABLE BODIED PEOPLE RIDE A FREAKIN BIKE ALREADY.

Women who Ride: The “Lost” Interview with Janel Sterbentz

Janel Sterbentz, not afraid to be outspoken about the negative impacts of motorized traffic on our quality of life

While Bike NOPA declined to publish the following interview with Janel Sterbentz, on account of the fact that she dared to mention how unpleasant, stinky and dangerous cars are, On the Level is happy to publish Janel’s words.  As you know if you are a regular reader, On the Level is not afraid of coming out of the closet with our opposition to the automobile.  If you are a woman cyclist, please submit your answers to these questions and On the Level will post your words here.   Even if you are in love with cars and think they have really improved our cities, please send us your answers to these questions and we will be happy to publish all points of view.

1.  What kind of cyclist are you?
Bold  |   carefree  |    Aggressive |  racer   |   foot down at stop signs   |   careful   | ETC -

Fast yet cautious. When I ride I prepare for all the possible directions motorists, pedestrians or other cyclists will take, it is like I am always picturing in my mind three seconds ahead in the future. I bike like I am invisible because many times cyclists are invisible to motorists who have limited visibility or are distracted in so many ways. I thrive on being so aware of my environment, I am most present and in the moment when cycling. I also feel hyper-connected to all the street life around me. Always wear a helmet and flashing front and back lights.
2.  Do you bike frequently and for what purpose?

I bike every day to stay mentally and physically fit. I don’t want anything to do with the oil industry’s wars, carnage from motorists hitting pedestrians/cyclists, or the air and noise pollution. To me cycling leads to a positive future and pleasant street environment while driving leaves destruction and unpleasantness in its path. Also, it is just so much fun to bike.

3.  What measures could be taken in San Francisco to get more women, including teenage girls, to cycle?

I think some women feel cycling is too dangerous and aggressive, especially biking in fast traffic and over uneven pavement. They may feel like it is not feminine, especially if they think they won’t be able to wear dresses, high heels, and purses; or that it will mess up their hair and make them sweaty. I think these concerns can be overcome by showing women the best routes to take, saying it is ok to bike slowly and on a more upright bike. When you compare figures in the US where only 1/3 of the bicycle commuter population are women versus The Netherlands or Copenhagen where it is more like half, you can see that when there are separated paths on safer routes more women, children and elderly bike.

4.  Have any of your friendships or relationships begun with cycling? Fun anecdotes you can tell us about?
I have to say, nearly all my friends are cyclists and don’t own cars. Some of my best friendships resulted from being in a bike dance group The Derailleurs (http://derailleurs.wordpress.com/). I always meet great people helping out with local bicycle coalitions.
5.  I shock others when I cycle by
Politely telling people who are parked in the bike lane that this is a space I need, otherwise I am forced into fast moving traffic.
6.  I tell other women who want to start cycling:

Get together with a friend who bikes, or if you don’t know anyone who bikes, volunteer at your local bicycle coalition, there are so many friendly cyclists who are eager to have others to bike around with. Bike to Work Day May 13th is a great time to start biking (http://www.youcanbikethere.com/). SFBC has commuter convoys where groups meet up and bike the best route to work (http://www.sfbike.org/?commuterconvoy). They also have street skills and bike maintenance classes. Bike in Golden Gate Park on JFK Drive on the weekends when the street is closed to cars to get used to it.

The Subtle Censorship That Defines Acceptable Discourse

People suffer when the horrors of our transport system are obscured by well meaning activists

A friend of mine- Janel Sterbentz- recently volunteered to be featured on the San Francisco based Bike NOPA blog in their “Women who Bike” series.   She submitted her responses to the questions, but the editor of Bike NOPA, Michael Helquist (also the winner of the SF Bike Coalition’s 2010 Golden Wheel Award), didn’t like her answer to question number 2, and requested that she change it if the piece was to be published.

This was the question:
2.  How often do you bike and what for?
And this was her answer:

“I bike every day to stay mentally and physically fit. I don’t want anything to do with the oil industry’s wars, carnage from motorists hitting pedestrians/cyclists, or the air and noise pollution. To me cycling leads to a positive future and pleasant street environment while driving leaves destruction and unpleasantness in its path. Also, it is just so much fun to bike.”

She declined to remove the offending paragraph and now her interview won’t be published as a result.

When viewpoints like Janel’s are intentionally kept out of public discourse, it does a major disservice to the political debate around our transport policies.   First, it allows people who habitually drive to continue to insulate themselves from the very real impacts of their mode choice on other people, particularly vulnerable road users.   Second, erasing voices like this one leaves the impression that if you are irritated by the noise, air pollution and danger caused by car traffic then you are somehow unusual, marginalized, or radical in some way.  A fear of marginalizing oneself actually helps perpetuate that marginalization.

The reality is that millions of regular people around the world- people who drive, cycle, walk, take the bus, or whatever- are irritated and their quality of life is diminished by transport policies that make car traffic- not human life or the environment- the primary consideration.

It’s no surprise that people wrongly believe that they are alone in these feelings or that there is no recourse within acceptable political debate to resolve them, when even bicycle advocates are afraid to reflect the truth about the environmental and social devastation caused by motor vehicle dependence.

The bicycle is wonderful for what it is (a liberating, fun, and healthy vehicle for the masses), but it is also wonderful for what it is not (a car) .  As the bicycle increases in popularity and organizations that promote its use gain political clout, they should not fail to remind people of the facts of car and fossil fuel dependence in some misplaced politeness or reluctance to confront.  Yes we need carrots- they are sweet, succulent, and attractive.  And god knows the bike is that.  But we also need the sticks of reality to wake people up who have been driven to excess by an insane, motorized world.

This is what the editor of Bike NOPA- Michael Helquist- told On the Level when reached for comment:

“I felt that a few of the comments made in this one submission were a bit doctrinaire and negative (with descriptions of the “carnage from motorists hitting pedestrians and bicyclists” and the “destruction” that comes with driving), and these were not a good fit for the series. As I mentioned to Janel Sterbentz today if I was interviewing her about larger transportation issues, about hazards that accompany biking, and the serious impacts of people relying solely on individual automobiles when other options are feasible, then her comments would certainly fit the context as reflecting her personal opinion.

I’m sure this wasn’t the way it was consciously intended, but effectively what Michael is saying is that he wanted to run a happy-go-lucky series about smiling women on bikes.  Forget that there are often complex reasons why women ride, or that women suffer disproportionately from car culture or that cycling itself might be a deeply political statement against the pain and destruction caused by cars.  When those issues arise, they are too often erased from the record because they might make people feel uncomfortable.  This is not an isolated incident, but a reflection of the larger dilution and creeping corporatization of the cycling movement and society at large.

We didn’t make smoking socially unacceptable by tip-toeing around the feelings of nicotine addicts- we showed them diseased lungs and confronted them with the scientific research.  What makes those who purport to seek social change in the transport arena so afraid of leveraging the growing body of evidence of the catastrophe of car addiction in order to change behavior?

Put simply, individuals are not going to make the right decisions about their transport habits or support sensible transport policies if they don’t have the facts.   And where are they going to get those facts if they aren’t disseminated by bike advocates and organizations dedicated to sustainable transportation?

Sustrans Stonewalls Again

Almost a year and a half after I posted it, Sustrans has still not publicly or privately responded to my article, The Problem with Sustrans: How a Grassroots Phenomenon Has Turned into a Private, Unaccountable Corporation.  The piece generated thousands of hits and dozens of readers from all around the UK have chimed in and confirmed my observations. My friend Chris Hutt- one of the original founders of Sustrans and an incredibly knowledgeable bicycle advocate, sadly died without warning a couple of months ago, and had this to say as part of his Sustrans Sussed post on the Green Bristol Blog last year:

“The current wave of criticism is not merely negative carping. It is a vital part of the dynamic environment within which we all function and will in due course bring about change. How quickly we see the necessary change depends on how far gone Sustrans is. Will they bury their heads in the sand and carry on currying favour with those with the money bags or will they recognise the need to re-engage with their core constituency, Britain’s cyclists?”

Sustrans started as a grassroots DIY organisation- people from the community getting out there with a shovel and pickaxe and restoring a neglected rail line between Bristol and Bath into a linear green haven. This bottom up effort came from visionaries who believed they could change transport. Back then with a tiny budget and a rebellious attitude, Sustrans accomplished some amazing feats of engineering and land preservation for which we should all be grateful.

Now though, there is growing concern about the direction of the UK’s “leading sustainable transport charity.”

The questions people are asking about the organization haven’t gone away, but have only intensified in response to Sustrans’ reluctance to engage, particularly glaring after they refused to even acknowledge questions posed two weeks ago on the Guardian’s You Ask- They Answer series.

Common threads to what people are saying are:

-Sustrans has become self-serving and opaque, often failing to work with and empower local people and local ideas.

-Sustrans spends millions of public money with inadequate public oversight.

-Sustrans has compromised its original vision of a high quality UK cycle network, settling for long detours and steep hills just to add mileage.

Sustrans is hardly unique amongst charities (on either side of the Atlantic).    Many have adopted the worst characteristics of corporations- cozying up to the government agencies they are meant to influence, and bickering with each other for increasingly scarce resources.  While Sustrans absorbs millions of pounds from concerned people in the UK to (not) campaign for a bicycle network, organizations like NRDC and EDF convince well meaning American environmentalists to support the Kerry-Lieberman climate bill backed by big oil, coal, and gas and the Nature Conservancy takes millions from oil companies currently wiping out sensitive wetlands.  As the title of Nick Seddon’s 2007 book asks after looking at the state of charitable organisations in the UK, “Who Cares“?

Photo courtesy Bikeradar

Here is a sample of comments received on the original article:

“Like you Josh, I applaud a lot of what Sustrans has achieved. But they know nothing about building links with other cycling orgs or engaging with the cycling community. Sadly I think they’ve become very arrogant, remote and self-centred.”

-Anonymous

” I know they have a job to do and that their projects are their priority — but honestly, their degree of self-interest is truly staggering. In many years of cycle campaigning I’ve never seen Sustrans try to work with other groups or simply to give something unconditionally.”

-Hector

“Perhaps the charity commission needs to look into Sustrans (if it has jursidiction)?”

-Paul Harris

“Tell me it’s not true! Quite a read, even a year on, it has the ring of truth about it…..

Democratic process is by now long passed. When an unelected, charitably constituted organisation can hold a whole village to ransom, what hope is there?

-David Shields

“Sustrans is no different to a whole host of NGOs charities and non profit making organisations who may establish themselves with altruism to meet a particular or perceived need but then find themselves as part of the establishment and find it difficult to separate social responsibility from self preservation.”

-Alan Gillard, architect, Cardiff

“Glad to see this finally come out – they have had far too easy a ride, and boy do they love riding roughshod over people.”

-”Snail”

“Sustrans most certainly aren’t a campaigning charity. I found my local sustrans office in Newcastle rather unsupportive when I started a campaign to improve cycling in Newcastle’s city centre (which is in dire need of improving). I have now cancelled my monthly donation with sustrans, written to sustrans’ chief exec to describe my disappointment and become a CTC member! Visit http://www.katlayout.co.uk/ for more on the safe cycling petition.”

-Katja Leyendecke

If no change is forthcoming from the charities that are meant to be bringing about the change we so desperately need, perhaps the best solution is for all of us to pick up a shovel and start digging. As Virgil said:

“They can do all because they think they can.”

It’s time for all of us to start believing another world is possible. It is.

D.I.Y. N.C.N.

On the Level Goes Feral

Can you name the edible plant in this photo?

I’ve finally done it.  I’ve left the city.  Moved out to a cabin in the woods in rural West Marin County north of San Francisco.  I am now subsisting on wild greens and breathing blissfully clean air.   For many years I tried desperately to maintain the charade that I am a “city person.”  Yet I noticed that I would flee with my bicycle and sleeping bag into the countryside at every opportunity.  I am now at age 34 finally accepting the truth.  I value a dark starry night over the bright city lights.  A quiet dawn over the honking of the car horn.  A small social town over a bustling anonymous metropolis.  And I suspect I am not alone amongst city dwellers.  Cities have the potential to become healthy habitats for human beings- indeed they must if we are to turn the tide on climate change- but we’re not there yet.  And I for one am getting sick of waiting around for the transition.

El Nino rains in California have led to an astounding diversity of fungi

The evolution of cities from a series of noisy, dangerous, and anti-social traffic sewers into green, friendly, and safe public spaces is certainly not being held up by the majority, who continue to clamor for quality urban environments.  Who could stand up and say that the tantalizing visions of a garden city depicted in the illustrations and murals of Mona Caron would not be healthier for our children– not to mention a far more pleasant place to live?   Yet the people who we allow to remain in power continue to design cities from behind windscreens- the machine retains priority.  How did we get to a point where human beings have designed habitats that are hostile to human beings?  What kind of psychotic system has allowed these things that go against our very nature?

There is no doubt that human beings are healthier in a natural setting. On an evolutionary- even a molecular basis we are drawn to riparian zones, where we are more likely to find sustenance.  Studies show we heal faster in hospital when there is greenery outside the window (1).    Kids even concentrate better in the classroom after they’ve been amongst the trees. (2)

The truth is that we are starved- nearly to death- by a profound lack of connection to the rest of life on the planet.  The massive popularity of the film Avatar- the highest grossing film of all time- is a wake up call that human beings are desperate for a deeper connection with the natural world- even if that means you have to drive to the multiplex for a 2 (okay, 3) dimensional imitation of the real thing.

Avatar provides a (computer generated) glimpse of the world we have largely destroyed. The reality when you walk out into the multiplex parking lot stands in stark contrast...

In fact, it’s not surprising that people have reported depression after seeing the complex diversity of life and landscapes and then comparing the fantasy life to their own bleak, traffic-dominated worlds.

Mushrooms can save the world, according to experts (3)

So, my plan is to capitalize on the success of Avatar- adding a new natural theme and design to my blog, which will appeal to all you poor nature deprived sods out there while generating billions in revenue!   Since green is the new black, I’m going full on green in 2010.  I’m taking an ecology class at Audubon Canyon, spending a ton of time in the wilderness, and attempting to document what I see and learn here on this blog.  Become more acquainted with what is at stake and get inspired to save it.  Or appreciate it all before it vanishes.  Depending on my mood.

Plants, unlike corporations, have been quietly green all along (cow parsnip if you're wondering)

Why is a blog ostensibly focused on transportation policy suddenly going feral? Talking mushrooms over mass transit, herons over highways, bobcats over buses?  Why?  Because we need to acquaint with and love all that is at stake on our beautiful planet if we are to get inspired to change business as usual.  And despite grim news stories and climate warnings, there is still much to love.   If we don’t want to see the disappearance of the Monarch butterfly, the redwood tree, and the California newt, and even worse get blamed for their disappearance, we need to harness the passion of John Muir.  We need to leave fossil fuels in the ground.  And believe me that’s not going to happen.  Unless we kill capitalism.  Unless we throw the sons of bitches out.  Unless we stop being selfish and learn to stay in one place.   Unless we realize that saving individual parcels of land from development while the skies are set ablaze ain’t gonna save paradise.

An Amanita. It looked fake- almost plastic...

A 'gooseneck' barnacle

You know that feeling of butterflies in your stomach- when you realize that the Earth is far more diverse, interconnected- even wiser than you ever thought possible?  Maybe you don’t know what I’m saying. (If not you should get out there and spend a night in the forest…believe me the suburbs are far scarier.)   Anyway I had a moment like this the other day when we came across a pond with newts embracing each other in amplexus.   The romantic amphibian dance that has kept the whole thing going.  Did you know that we don’t know how long newts live- the oldest ones in captivity are over 30 years old!  They’re definitely wiser than you or I!!  So, even though it’s not really that type of blog, I’m posting some porn for your viewing pleasure.  I hope it will give you butterflies as it did me.

Notes

1) Ulrich, R.S. 1984. View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science, 224: 420-421.

(2) Wells, Nancy M. (2000). At Home with Nature, Effects of “Greenness” on Children’s Cognitive Functioning, Environment and Behavior, 32(6), 775-795

(3) Stamets, Paul. Mycelium Running

Anti-Car (not anti-driver) and Proud

On Friday I was at the SF Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) to give a talk with Bruce Appleyard entitled The Legacy of Livable Streets: Four decades later, what have we learned? Bruce is the son of Donald Appleyard the UC Berkeley professor who led the 1969 study on the social impacts of motor vehicle traffic in San Francisco that I replicated for my dissertation at the UWE Centre for Transport and Society.  Tragically, Donald Appleyard was killed by a speeding car in 1982, a shock that reverberated throughout the urban planning world.

Following in his father’s footsteps, Bruce is finishing up his PhD at UC Berkeley and looking to release a second edition of his Dad’s seminal work, Livable Streets.   He and I just met when I returned to the States in October.  He’s a really sweet guy, and I feel like I’m almost getting to know the father through the son.    Bruce and I have been traveling around the Bay Area talking with high school students, planning organizations, and anyone else who will listen about the importance of his father’s work, and how we can take lessons from Livable Streets to help us get us out of this mess that we’re in.

Josh Hart and Bruce Appleyard at Santa Cruz High School Dec. 17th 2009

David Baker, architect of sustainable housing and longtime bicycle advocate, moderated the session on Friday and introduced me as being ‘one of the old guard transportation activists from San Francisco- someone who has, over the years, remained unabashedly anti-car.’ (or something like that)

Thank you David Baker.   Honestly, that is the kindest thing you could possibly say to me.  As readers of this blog are well aware, there is no love lost between me and ol’ four wheels.  Unfortunately the potentially healthy relationships we could have had with the car have (almost exclusively) been usurped by relationships of dependency that have proven devastating to our health.  Devastating in ways that are now being documented and measured like never before.

I have no problem with coming right out and saying it.   I am anti-car.  I am vehemently and totally against our society’s current relationship with the automobile.  The expectation that everyone can own a car and use it as one’s primary transportation is delusional and dangerous.  However, I am not anti-driver. And there is a big difference.  Love the patient.   Hate the disease.

What I said by way of introduction at the SPUR event, was the following:

Imagine that you grew up in an alcoholic family, watching your sisters and brothers beaten, your parents so drunk they couldn’t stand up, watching them collapse in the gutter puking their guts out, watching them neglect the ones who they loved and gamble the family’s nest egg just so they could get one more bottle of booze.  If this was you, I imagine you’d be pretty anti-alcohol, despite perhaps enjoying a glass of wine with dinner on occasion as an adult.

Our society is like that family- but the drug of choice is of course, fossil fuels, with the most potent method of administering that drug being the motor vehicle.   Sadly, the addiction is that much worse because it goes undiagnosed (and like many other drugs is extremely dangerous when combined with alcohol).  The side effects written off as “tragic accidents” and “natural” disasters.  Somehow we have grown numb to the impacts.  The biggest killer of our kids.  The greatest threat to our future.  Doesn’t get much bigger than that.

To confront the reality directly would require difficult questions about the morality of our society- especially questions of class and corporate power, and require an initially painful period of withdrawal.  For most people, that transition is too much to take on as long as social norms and current land uses continue to require that human adults individually purchase and operate a vehicle with five or more seats.  Though as a new generation grow up into a senseless motorized and suicidal society, this dynamic is perhaps gradually starting to shift.

We need an intervention of historic proportions- a way to shake ourselves out of our complacency. But how, when, and where?  Who?  You?

So why am I anti-car?  So glad you asked.  Let us count the reasons:

Top Ten Reasons I am Anti-Car:

Cars are killing our kids. Motor vehicles are the number one killer of California children and UK boys (1).

Cars are poisoning the air. We sacrifice the air that we breathe to exhaust pipes, the toxins from which kill up to an estimated 2.4 million people/ year and degrade the health and quality of life of billions more. (2)  One’s right to breathe is now considered less important than one’s right to drive.

Cars are destroying our mental health Worsening road noise causes an unknown epidemic of stress, sleep deprivation- even heart disease and depression. (3)

Cars are destroying our local social lives and communities. The volume of traffic on your road largely determines the number of your neighbors with whom you are acquainted,  and particularly the number of close friends.  (4)

Cars are terrifying billions into lives of inactivity and disease. Cars not only allow people to live virtually exercise-free lives, they also scare countless others away from walking and bicycling and into sedentary (and often solitary) lifestyles.  Lovely stuff.   Skyrocketing obesity levels in the developed world are a predictable outcome of our car-friendly planning and transport policies over the last 60 years.  In the United States, 70% of the population fails to meet minimum recommended physical activity (5), a deficiency that leads to over $77 billion per year in hospital costs. (6)

Cars destroy human and animal life.  We kill or seriously injure 50 million human beings (7) (more than 200 Haitis) and somewhere over 1 billion wild and domesticated animals every year which we dismiss as “accidents” on the world’s roads. (8)  The truth is that this massive suffering and death toll is a preventable tragedy.  Deaths and injuries are strongly linked to the number and speed of vehicles on a given roadway. (9)  One less car will actually save a life.

Cars are jeopardizing our stable climate.  We are endangering the very foundation of our civilization- a stable, productive climate, just so we can continue to put the pedal to the metal.  Despite clear warnings from scientists, we persist in selfish and self-destructive behaviors like individual, habitual driving- not because we are evil, but because we think that someone else is paying attention to the problem.  Cars are responsible for more CO2 emitted than any other sector in California. (10)

Adolf Hitler LOVED cars. And yes, what top ten list would be complete without Hitler.  It is true that the man himself really was the driving force behind the Volkswagen, the Autobahn, and ultimately the technique of killing 6 million Jews and other undesirables efficiently with the use of the internal combustion engine.

On that note, happy cycling.

Sources

(1)  ONS, 2002. Social Focus in Brief: Children July 2002. London: Office for National Statistics/TSO. Available from: http://www.statistics.gov.uk [Accessed 8 April 2008].  For US: http://www.disastercenter.com/cdc/111riskc.html

(2) WHO, 2002. Estimated deaths & DALYs attributable to selected environmental risk factors. WHO Member State, 2002.

(3)  YAMAZAKI, S., SOKEJIMA, S., NITTA, H., NAKAYAMA, T., FUKUHARA, S., 2005. Living close to automobile traffic and quality of life in Japan: A population-based survey, International Journal of Environmental Health Research, 15:1, 1-9.

(4)  APPLEYARD, D., 1969.  The Environmental Quality of City Streets: The Residents’ Viewpoint.  Journal of the American Planning Association, 35, pp. 84-101.

and

HART, J. (2008) Driven to Excess: Impacts of Motor Vehicle Traffic on Residential Quality of Life in Bristol, UK.  University of the West of England 2008.

(5)  U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES, 2000. Healthy People 2010. Washington, DC: USDHHS.

(6)  PRATT, M., MACERA, C.A., WANG, G., 2000. Higher direct medical costs associated with physical inactivity. The Physician and Sports Medicine. 28 (10), 63–70.

(7) WHO, 2004. Global strategy on diet, physical activity and health. Geneva: World Health Organization.

(8) http://culturechange.org/issue8/roadkill.htm

(9)  ROBERTS, I., NORTON, R., JACKSON, R., DUNN, R., HASSALL, I., 1995.  Effect of environmental factors on risk of injury of child pedestrians by motor vehicles: a case-control study.  British Medical Journal. 310:91-94.

and

IIHS, 2000. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Status Report 35 (5), May 13, 2000.

(10) http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_vehicles/solutions/cleaner_cars_pickups_and_suvs/californias-global-warming.html

Cross Street with Caution- Vehicles May Not Stop

Yesterday, on the first day of the Copenhagen conference, I went for a bike ride around San Francisco to clear the cobwebs. I rode past the Golden Gate Bridge, and noticed that a new pedestrian ‘safety’ device had been installed.  Clearly, tourists from the UK had been visiting the bridge, and seeing a zebra crosswalk, assumed they had right of way.   It’s good that the Bridge District put in an audible warning so as to remind visitors who really has priority on the mean streets of the good ‘ol U S of A.

I then rode past City Hall where men were ripping open plastic bags full of ice out of the back of a lorry, and depositing them into a large grinding machine, so as to make it ‘snow’ all over the front of city hall.   I wonder how much carbon was emitted to make the ice, put it in plastic bags, drive it to City Hall, then run the snow machine for an hour.   All this on the first day of Copenhagen.   Oh the sweet sorrow.  Oh the irony.

Sea level is rising now, the climate is changing, but if we cover City Hall with snow hopefully no one will notice and we can continue to eat hors d’oevres

This kind of display would have been absolutely unheard of in the National Parks while Bush was in office

The transformation of Crissy Field from industrial wasteland to nature preserve has been astounding.  There are birds, mice, pelicans, and butterflies where once there was an airfield and military base.  It’s nice to see the changes after three years away.

If the ice at both poles melted, sea level would reach the roadway on the Golden Gate Bridge.  At least the oil tankers couldn’t reach the Richmond refinery any longer!

Carbon Offsets or Car Ban, Off Streets? A Tussle over the Meaning of Green

In the days leading up to Copenhagen, it seems that everyone has been talking about false market based climate ‘solutions’ such as carbon offsetting and trading. A couple of weeks ago, I cycled over to the Green Festival in San Francisco, put on by the non-profits Global Exchange and Green America (formerly Co-op America), to find out why carbon offsetting continues to be promoted as a solution, despite evidence that it can actually worsen emissions, and provide psychological cover for carbon-heavy lifestyles.

With this in mind, I put on a suit and tie, bought a half dozen helium heart balloons, tied them onto the back of my bike and coasted into downtown, red balloons flailing wildly in the wind as I flew down the Post St. hill.  The romantic descent was only quelled somewhat by a sudden waft of urine as I navigated around garbage trucks through the Tenderloin.   Luckily the balloons were hard to miss, and (I hoped) would act as airbags in case of assault by four wheeled death monster– an idea actually in development according to the blog Copenhagenize.

Why was I doing such a thing on a sunny Saturday afternoon in November when I could have been out riding on beautiful Mt. Tamalpais overlooking the Pacific Ocean?  Screw nature.  Forget love.  I was heading to the Green Festival obsessed with profit.  Yes that’s right.  My mission was to gauge American consumer interest in an innovative new product created by 3 young entrepreneurs in the hills of mid Wales.

CheatNeutral.com, the company created by Christian Hunt, Alex Randall and Beth Stratford, promises to ‘offset’ your indiscretions by channeling your fee to another couple so as to “buy” their fidelity.   The idea is that the overall ‘heartbreak, pain, and jealousy in the atmosphere’ would thereby remain stable.   Romantic candlelit interludes and carnal pleasure fests alike- quantified and fed into the capitalist system, a privatisation of the most private areas of your life.

According to Operations Director Beth Stratford, Cheatneutral is one of a growing number of ‘guilt management tools’ now being marketed to assist in the rationalisation of a whole range of immoral and selfish acts.

But would San Francisco, the sex positive playground of the West, the home of the polyamorous burning man hipster, the Lusty Lady and the Barbary Coast take the bait, buy the snake oil and pay to break their partner’s heart?  Or would it click that carbon offsetting is a dangerous distraction from the changes in behaviour that are now essential if we are to avert a future catastrophic crumbling of civilisation?  Perhaps both.

Eager to find out, the new San Francisco marketing director for Cheatneutral.com strolled into the giant hall with hundreds of exhibitors flown in from around the country, thousands of attendees from the Bay Area and the vibe of a giant Whole Foods Market.  My mission: to separate the sneaky cheaters from the loyal and faithful- to see whether the Green festival is really green– or just greenwash.

I handed out Cheatneutral Flyers, and explained the valuable service that we offered.   Past stalls with hemp dresses, organic lotions, yerba mate beer, and assorted green sundry, I plied the trade, and neither the humour (nor the serious message) seemed to be lost on people, besides a few who started inquiring about prices and who I had to hurriedly explain that it was actually a joke.

Walking down the hallway, I ran into none other than Gavin Newsom the San Francisco mayor who has had his share of embarrassing extramarital affairs.   A moment like this only comes along every so often.  I strode up to him, his handlers visibly nervous at the approach of this suited man with a walrus moustache grasping a bunch of heart balloons.  “Mayor Newsom, I’d like to tell you about our company.   We’re Cheatneutral.com and we’re proud to be able to offset your sexual indiscretions for a small fee.”   He looked confused for a minute, then smiled broadly.  Apparently, he has been waiting for just such a service.  He accepted the flyer, then continued down the hall, the gallons of product in his coiffed hair leaving a slime in his wake that would rival the Exxon Valdez.

I approached the booth of a company called “Brighter Planet” who sell carbon offsets- even allowing you to earn them for every dollar you charge to your credit card!  Talk about missing the point.

Here are the chilling words from their website:

“At Brighter Planet, we’re proud to be pioneers of a new environmentalism: one that is accessible to everyone, fits easily with one’s lifestyle, and is fun to share. We invite you to sign up and join our growing community!”

I had a genial conversation with the guys from the company- one of them couldn’t stop laughing, while as soon as I started taking pictures he became very huffy and kicked me out of their booth.    I guess it’s hard to admit that you are making a living by lying to people, making them feel green when they’re really not.

The day ended with a rap and ride by Fossil Fool, with his phenomenal new pedal powered mobile sound system:

“Don’t be greenin’ it if you ain’t meanin’ it

Only hurts the movement for those who believe in it…”

The Low Down on Offsetting
Offsetting isn’t going to deliver us a stable climate any more than clicking your heels together and saying “there’s no place like home”.  Offsets and other carbon trading measures simply allow the global rich to continue their unequal, immoral, and selfish appropriation of the Earth’s atmosphere.  Offsetting and other false solutions to the climate crisis need to be stamped out and ridiculed at every opportunity.

Put simply, carbon heavy behavior like excessive consumption, driving and flying need to become so socially repugnant that if you choose to engage in them you will lose your friends and everyone will hate you.  Period.  Full Stop.  It cannot be overstated the dramatic and tectonic- yet potentially sudden changes that this will require.

Guys who speed around in fancy cars must be deprived of the sex that presumably results from this primal macho display.  Nothing like starving Africans and flooded homes to extinguish a girl’s appetite.  But don’t worry we at Cheatneutral will compensate you for your flaccid moments with our Offset Project Program.™

Joking aside, bottom line is that we need to make this into a battle for individual hearts and minds- and that inevitably means behaviour shift as well.   For too long we have been afraid of confronting each other’s oil addictions, discouraged by green organisations petrified of “offending the motorist” or being seen as too marginal.

Yet a major intervention, with all the family and friends round, sitting us down, smiling, and telling us that things can’t go on like this, is now what we desperately need.  That for our own lives and happiness we should move back into the neighbourhood where we live, stop working so much so we can buy stuff we don’t need, get acquainted with our neighbours and ride a bicycle.  Doesn’t sound that bad to me.

A climate friendly world would be a better world- but not for corporate greed (photo: Ecotopia)

The implications of the science are far more radical and marginal (by today’s standards) than even the most rabid hairshirt hippie ever dreamed up in a haze of cannabis laced idealism.  Yet, it doesn’t seem to be translating into personal limits.

We need to put the science of climate change first- not our heavily ad-influenced assumptions about personal mobility and Victorian attitudes about our relationship with the natural world.  Let’s figure out how much damage we’ve done, what it’s going to take to limit the worst of it, how much carbon all six billion of us can safely continue to emit, and restructure our societies to allow that to happen.

I’m talking- if not cold turkey- then a pretty cool bird.   Using fuel simply to meet basic human needs, and to assemble infrastructure we will need over the long term, before the resource becomes unaffordable and out of reach.  A pre-planned soft landing, lifting our heads out of the thick tar sands of oil addiction and see the forest for the trees (don’t get excited Green America- trees won’t offset the Alberta tar sands!).

As I understand the science there may not be even enough atmospheric space left for the global south to meet their basic needs like food, water, clothing and shelter and for us in the North to meet our own, without taking unacceptable risks to our safety (sorry, Donald Trump, your flight to the Bahamas is not a basic need).

The battle is not so much political or economic as moral.   We are not powerless automatons, a society destined to perish in our own effluent just because some asshole in a suit wants to sell us the latest product.   Presumably we all have free will and determine our own course in life- the effects of propaganda aside.

If we don’t buy their shit, and don’t buy into their insane growth-at-any-cost worldview, then their climate-wrecking machine will grind to a halt just as surely as a car without oil will sputter.

Anyone who’s been watching ongoing international climate negotiations can say it with confidence.   Copenhagen will not yield a safe, sensible plan for climate stability.  Governments and the corporations propping them up cannot be trusted it seems with such a basic function as protecting life on planet Earth.

It’s time to drop the pretense that the plane and the car aren’t selfish symbols of a 20th century level of unprecedented personal mobility that we can no longer afford- personally, culturally, or globally.  We can no more neutralise the billions of tons of carbon that we are responsible for ejecting into the atmosphere as offset that selfish and ill-advised cheat that tore apart our lover’s heart.  Love is not for sale.   Neither is the atmosphere.

The credit for the title of this post goes to Zach Houston, who I found in a corner typing poems for people on an old manual typewriter at the Green Festival.  Cheatneutral inspired a poem:

the car ban off streets
will be the only true
beauty is not even
having to travel
because we can
already be
there by
thinking
green
growth can
some how
hold out
against
predatory
marketeering
of sarcastic
surface fix
for sale:
nature, used

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)