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Category Archives: CarNage
Fix Fell Demands Safe Streets as a Human Right
Donald Appleyard always used to say that the measure of a livable street was if a cat could lie out in the middle of the road. Chances are it was a good habitat for humans as well. When Andrew Lloyd Webber adapted Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats into Cats the following didn’t make the cut:
“Old Deuteronomy sits in the street,
He sits in the High Street on market day…
The cars and the lorries run over the kerb,
And the villagers put up a notice: ROAD CLOSED-
So that nothing untoward may chance to disturb
Deuteronomy’s rest when he feels so disposed
Or when he’s engaged in domestic economy…”
The people in my study who lived on 20,000 car/ day Muller Rd. in Bristol didn’t let their cats lie out in the road. In fact, virtually all of them had given up owning pets entirely. The heartbreak of losing them was just too much for them to bear….
Posted in Advocacy, Car Dependence, CarNage, Livable Streets, Nature
Plug the Holes or We Won’t Go
We will return to the Arco station every week to peacefully block the Fell St. entrances until BP plugs the holes in the Gulf and until the City plugs the dangerous driveways on Fell and makes it safe for people to live less oil dependent lives.
Fridays 5:30pm-8:30pm Fell and Divisadero San Francisco
Special thanks to Janel Sterbentz for producing this video- if the BABC won’t put her talents to use then we certainly will!
Full text of speech available here.
A Sad Chapter in Bay Area Bicycle Advocacy
I am truly speechless. It turns out that Janel Sterbentz, one of the organizers of last Friday’s protest at the Fell/ Divisadero Arco station, and whose “Women who Ride” interview for the Bike NOPA blog was suppressed because she said that “cars leave destruction and unpleasantness in their path” has been forced to resign from her position as Bike to Work Day Coordinator at the Bay Area Bicycle Coalition (BABC), following SF Bicycle Coalition Program Manager Marc Caswell’s condemnation of her comments made on this blog as well as her role helping to organize Friday’s protest.
Many months ago, after being nearly knocked off her bike in front of the Arco station on Fell St., Janel asked the SFBC what was being done to improve safety along this critical thoroughfare. Marc told her that she should “take on a Fell street campaign because the SFBC ‘doesn’t have time’ to work on it.”
So she takes it on as a volunteer. After a year of rallying the neighborhood associations, speaking with the SFMTA and working with the SFBC, the city came up with a proposal and brought it before transportation engineers at a public hearing. Several residents in the neighborhood voiced their disapproval of removing a few parking spaces to make a left turn lane and the proposal was stalled. The SFMTA came back a month later with a watered down plan for a 7am to 7pm tow zone- a half measure that will not come close to fixing the dangerous condition at the Arco station.
Someone please explain to me why it is acceptable to sacrifice the safety of thousands of vulnerable road users every day so a handful of people can continue to enjoy city-subsidized free private vehicle storage along the public right of way. I just don’t get it.
So, seeing that the system had totally failed, Janel plans to help mobilize a protest last Friday that captures widespread media attention and galvanizes the support of motorists and cyclists alike to finally close the dangerous gas station entrances on Fell, and what does she get? Fired from her bicycle advocacy job. You heard me right.
Now you might say- well the bicycle coalitions don’t want to be associated with a direct action protest. But hold on just a second. It wasn’t too long ago that the SFBC coordinated a series of direct actions in the Panhandle with their volunteer crossing guard program (started by yours truly when I was Program Director) that put pressure on the city and now- even though the intersection at Masonic and the Panhandle isn’t perfect- we do have a dedicated phase for non-motorized traffic. It seems that the new SFBC staff has a very short memory.
Now, I don’t expect the bike coalitions to participate in every protest (even though the public would never have known who Janel was employed by) but I do expect them not to undermine grassroots efforts by their members and off-duty employees to draw attention to one of the most dangerous stretches of roadway in the city for bicyclists.
As program director at the SFBC for almost three years, I understand the importance of public image. But this latest incident is a disturbing example of the coalition actually going against their base- acting in a way that undermines the very cause they are meant to be promoting. This is one of a series of recent events that is raising concern about the Coalition amongst longtime members.
Janel’s general comments several weeks ago on my blog about environmental organizations are absolutely right on:
“@onthelevel: I agree, a sentiment often develops that the organizations who speak for and represent the movement are on top of the issues and are working in our best interest. That they know what they are doing so we don’t need to get involved unless we are told what to do……”
These comments- made as a private individual- were seized upon by SFBC Program Manager Marc Caswell, who immediately sent an e-mail to Andrew Casteel, Executive Director of the BABC, essentially suggesting that Andrew reassess whether Janel should continue working at the BABC:
“As BABC Board, I’m a bit concerned by Janel’s public comments criticizing, ostensibly, the SFBC. While I can understand the frustration regarding not having comments published– and don’t really care to get involved in that discussion– the later blog comment by Janel is a direct criticism of not only an allied organization, but a member organization(!) of BABC.”
Marc goes on to say:
“Of course, anyone is free to say what they want– but, as a BABC staff person, comments and public statements criticizing allies isn’t a positive way to move the movement forward. And comments like this do, in fact, reflect upon the employer.”
Nowhere did Janel indicate that she was talking about any specific organization. But that didn’t stop Marc (who is also on the board of the BABC) from leaping to the conclusion that she was referring to the SFBC.
Marc also took issue with the fact that Janel helped organize the successful protest last Friday. Note that the SFBC has not breathed a word about the oil spill or why people should ride a bike in response to it in almost two months. A month ago, a number of people (including Marc) were invited by e-mail to take part in planning this protest. However, the SFBC refused to take part, instead choosing to target Janel for her role in organizing peaceful action at a location where cyclists’ lives are daily put at risk and only half-measures have been supported by the Board of Supervisors.
Marc continues in his e-mail to Andrew:
“Beyond that smaller concern, I’ve been CC’ed on the email threads about the Fell Street Arco station protest in the coming month—and I’ve noticed that Janel is the *creator* of the event on Facebook…. as a Board member of the organization, my top job is to ‘ensure the health’ of the organization– and I think these recent public actions are undermining that. I’m not sure what we can do to fix it– but I want to at least express my concern as BABC Board with you both as staff. I’d welcome any further discussion on this topic and am available if you need me.“
Andrew’s response to Marc was:
“Janel has not run any of those blog posts or events by me for approval”
As if he controls every activity a part-time employee engages in outside of work. I’m sorry but that is the logic of the corporation, not of a grassroots bicycle advocacy organization.
So to try and put all of this into some perspective, you have Janel Sterbentz- a passionate and productive employee of the BABC– forced to resign because:
a) She made a general comment about the state of environmental organizations on a blog.
b) She helped to organize a protest against the Gulf Oil Spill, the worst environmental disaster in US history and against the continued obstruction of one of the most important bike lanes in San Francisco.
c) She made a (very reasonable and timely) documentary about the need for a bike path on the west span of the Bay Bridge and gave it to Senator Boxer’s aid at the National Bike Summit as an individual constituent and got flack from her boss who said it was not appropriate to share the video without approval from her superiors in the California Bicycle Delegation.
It is indeed a sad state of affairs when a committed activist such as Sterbentz is terminated from her official role in bicycle advocacy for speaking out against car culture. And all that much worse because it came from a fellow colleague. This is not what I pay my membership dues for. And though I don’t relish criticizing my friends at the SFBC, I do strongly suggest that if people are disturbed by this series of events, that they express their discontent to the acting ED Renee Rivera and the Bay Area Bicycle Coalition Board.
The region’s bicycle coalitions need to seriously check themselves about this incident. There’s a real world out here and people are getting hurt by car dependence. Silence is no longer an option.
Posted in Advocacy, Car Dependence, CarNage, corporations, Cycling, direct action, Livable Streets, Oil Industry
Fell St. ARCO Closed For Total Rethink
What an incredible, inspiring protest yesterday in San Francisco. Truly in awe at the raw energy from the neighborhood residents who have clearly had enough of this dangerous and awful situation that the city has failed to correct- where cars lined up for cheap (BP) gas obstruct the only level east west bike lane in the city, forcing cyclists directly into speeding traffic. It would be hilariously ironic if it weren’t so tragically awful. We got a ton of media responding to our press release, including all the local TV stations, SF Weekly, the Guardian, Streetsblog, Indymedia, SF Gate, KPFA (starting at 13:50), Pirate Radio, and others. Video will be up here shortly in the next couple of days.
People are discussing coming back and shutting the entrances every week until the holes are plugged- both the one in the Gulf, and the entrances on Fell St. that drive the fear of cycling and demand for oil. Updates will be posted here.
Here is a copy of my speech yesterday, with the help of El Arbol, Fossil Fool‘s amazing pedal powered mobile sound system:
Thank you to everyone who showed up today, and to those who spread the word and made this happen. This was truly a grassroots effort, not organized by any official non-profit organization, just a few of us from the neighborhood concerned about the way things are going.
We have succeeded in (at least temporarily) shutting down a toxic business that threatens the neighborhood, threatens the Gulf, and ultimately threatens the world. The presence of this Arco station endangers cyclists on Fell St. and finances a criminally negligent corporation.
Before we go any further, let’s have a moment of silence to remember the victims of this terrible catastrophe. The eleven men who were killed on the Deepwater Horizon and their families. The millions of Gulf residents- both human and wild who are suffering as we speak.
As we remember these victims, let’s not forget the other victims of car culture- those motorists who do not have viable alternatives to driving alone, and whose health is suffering as a result. People on bikes, on foot, and in cars who have been seriously injured or killed by cars- over 1.2 million of us throughout the world every year.
Let’s not forget all those elderly people living out the last of their days in isolation because their streets- streets like Oak and Fell have become nothing more than traffic sewers.
We must remember all those children growing up deprived of any connection to the natural world, surrounded by speeding steel and asphalt, getting to know the world only from the backseat of a car.
Now I am not pointing the finger or blaming those who drive cars- for many years I was one of them, and occasionally still am. Drivers are as much victims of this inhumane system as the rest of us.
Somehow, we need to rethink our cities as safe and pleasant habitats for human beings. The fact that they are NOT is an indication that something has gone deeply awry with our culture.
These days, cars are supposedly such a part of our lives that we are not allowed to question their dominance. But when California’s cars are the number one source of carbon emissions. When our cars are the number one killer of our children. When our thirst for oil drives the kind of disaster we are seeing in the Gulf, I think we need to begin to ask questions. These realities point to the fact that we are dangerously, hopelessly addicted to our motor vehicles.
We now know that over ONE MILLION gallons of toxic crude are leaking into the Gulf of Mexico every day. An Exxon Valdez of oil every 8-10 days.
The most advanced technology humans have is INCAPABLE of stopping what our technology has unleashed.
Just as if we continue to emit more than 5 BILLION tons of greenhouse gases into the Earth’s atmosphere every year we will be incapable of closing the Pandora’s box we have opened.
The oil companies and the government have reassured us they have the situation under control. They say “TRUST US” we know what we’re doing. Well you know what? We DON’T trust you anymore.
If the United States government, controlled by multinational energy giants- continues to undermine climate justice on an international level and endanger the future of life on this planet for selfish, short term profits, there will be social unrest like we have never before seen in this country. It may be next week. It may be in 20 years. But I cannot accept that the people in this country will accept the sacrifice of this planet without a fight.
From individual citizens reporting what is happening in the Gulf, we know that BP IS STILL IN CHARGE, despite what Obama says. BP defies the EPA, pumping tons of chemical dispersant into the sea, not to reduce the environmental damage but to hide the extent of the spill from the public- to keep the damage UNDERWATER away from the lens of the media.
According to the New York Times, BP is ordering the US Coast Guard and local police forces to keep the media away from areas filled with dead and dying wildlife, bagging the bodies and stashing them out of view the same way we do with the bodies of civilian casualties in Iraq.
Today in San Francisco, we say NO. WE WILL NO LONGER BE SILENT IN THE FACE OF THESE BRAZEN ATTACKS ON OUR HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT.
Today, we bear witness to the connection between unsafe cycling conditions and our own fatal dependence on fossil fuels for transportation.
Future generations will learn about how our society treated people who opted out of car culture- how we continue to design streets that cause deaths and injuries of vulnerable road users- just to maximize traffic flow. Streets that scare people into lives of inactivity and oil dependence, and they will recoil in horror.
In response to the mentally ill man who mowed down four innocent people on bicycle the other day, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition tells us that “OUR STREETS ARE SAFE.” Well you know what? THEY ARE NOT SAFE. And they are very rarely pleasant. Riding a bike in the city could be paradise. But right now, for most of us it is a scary experience.
Instead of giving us tired old platitudes, they could have used this horrific incident to condemn the countless acts of intimidation of people on bicycles throughout the city every day, people who use cars as deadly weapons to threaten vulnerable road users, revving their engines like a predatory animal. Incidents that the San Francisco Police Department responds to only with a nod and a wink.
Our fossil fuel dependent society is neither advanced nor civilized. All the luxuries and unrestrained mobility that we take for granted are an historical anomaly made possible by a finite supply of cheap oil.
We are literally being kept alive by large multinational corporations like BP and Safeway. When the cheap oil runs out as it inevitably will, our civilization will collapse as surely as those human civilizations of the past have done.
BUT TODAY WE STAND UP TOGETHER AND REJECT THAT FATE. We know that another world is possible. A future of humans living in a reciprocal relationship with nature, not an exploitative one where we take and take and take.
A future where health and the environment are prioritized over profit. A future with networks of safe green routes for walking and cycling, lined with trees and plants, connecting the whole city, the whole bay area. Where clean, quiet, and frequent public transit connects cities.
Where we have leisure time to spend with our families and friends and we are no longer forced to waste our lives under fluorescent lights at jobs we hate just to keep ourselves and our families alive and feed our cars.
A sane world where we can feed OURSELVES without resorting to factory farms, tortured animals, poisoned fields, and genetically modified crops.
A world where we are reconnected to our fellow human beings and to the natural world.
Money is NOT REAL. It is a construct- ultimately only paper and metal. What IS real are plants, human beings, and other animals.
The love between a mother and her child. That is real. We must build a new world based on that, or we will end up destroying this beautiful planet and the living beings who inhabit it.
If any good can come out of this catastrophic situation in the Gulf, it can be an OPPORTUNITY for people to come together and start building a better world, the way we have built up this little green park here today.
Power is not taken- it is given. And if the powers that be will not face up to their historic responsibility to quickly wean us off fossil fuels, we will have to STOP GIVING THEM OUR POWER.
We solved this longstanding neighborhood problem here ourselves. We didn’t ask the government to do it for us. We didn’t give money to a non-profit to lobby for us. WE JUST WENT OUT AND DID IT OURSELVES.
It really IS that easy.
Women who Ride: The “Lost” Interview with Janel Sterbentz
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.
Posted in Advocacy, Car Dependence, CarNage, Cycling, Livable Streets, Media
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“?
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.”
” 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.”
“Perhaps the charity commission needs to look into Sustrans (if it has jursidiction)?”
“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?
“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.”
“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.”
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.
Posted in Advocacy, Car Dependence, CarNage, Cycling, Global Warming, Livable Streets, Media, Transport Planning
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.
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.
(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.
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.
(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.
IIHS, 2000. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Status Report 35 (5), May 13, 2000.
Walk 21: Pedestrian Blackjack Claptrap or Sustainable Transport Agenda?
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
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.
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”
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.
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.
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
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….
-From Toyota’s “Beyond Cars” Greenwashing Campaign
“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
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.
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!
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
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
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.
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.
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!
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…