Category Archives: 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.

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.


(1)  ONS, 2002. Social Focus in Brief: Children July 2002. London: Office for National Statistics/TSO. Available from: [Accessed 8 April 2008].  For US:

(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.


Holier than You

OK well there have been rumors, and you might have had a sneaking suspicion.   But now it’s official.   I am in fact “holier than you.”  This is according to the Holier Than You Blog which featured this photo of me from the other day waiting for the Caltrain at San Jose station in my new orange rain pants.    So saddle up for sanctimony!  Amp up the attitude.   Prepare for piousness!   My cycle pants have been known to blind a man at forty paces.  It’s not going to be pretty.

Joking very much aside, I was trapped on a Highway 17 ‘express’ bus the other morning that broke down near the Summit for an hour.  (thank you Arnold Schwarzenegger for cutting transit funds drastically while leaving highway funding totally intact!  sweeet.)  Anyway, silver lining is that I got to meet Richard Masoner who runs the famous and well respected blog.  A fascinating guy- he works at a software company by day and maintains his blog a lot more frequently than I do.   He also does product reviews for Momentum Magazine, the magazine for self-propelled people.

If you’re in the Bay Area this Friday I will be talking at a SPUR brown bag lunch with Bruce Appleyard so come by and be blinded by my dazzling wit, or *far* more likely by my eye piercing rainpants.

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!

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.

Picture 1

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”


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.

Picture 2

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.


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

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….

The Greenwash:

Picture 3

-From Toyota’s “Beyond Cars” Greenwashing Campaign

The Reality:

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

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

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

Spring in New York


Washington Square Park (from an NYU stairwell)

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

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

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


The Greening of Broadway

The Greening of Broadway

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

Street Life on Broadway

Street Life on Broadway

Times Square

It's about time!

It's about time!

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

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

Ninth Avenue Bike Lanes

A bike lane my mom would ride

A bike lane my mom would ride

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

The High Line

Getting above it all on the High Line...

Getting above it all on the High Line...

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

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

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

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

Reclining chairs along the High Line lead to socializing

Reclining chairs along the High Line lead to socializing

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

Industrial future

Industrial future

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

On the Level Blog approves....

On the Level Blog approves....

I love NY!

I love NY!

The Not-so-Shiny Jewel: An Investigation into the Environmental Impacts of the Cruise Industry

An endangered fin whale was impaled on the bow of a Princess cruise ship in Vancouver in July, raising the issue of the tragic impacts of large ships on marine mammals

An endangered fin whale was impaled on the bow of a Princess cruise ship in Vancouver in July, highlighting the damage that large ships cause to marine mammals

Norwegian Cruise Lines tried to charge me $55 for the “Behind the Scenes” tour of the Jewel, but when I mentioned that I wrote a ‘travel blog’, they made an exception and let me join the tour free of charge.

The tour included meeting the captain on the bridge, touring the laundry room, garbage and recycling area, theatre, galley, and food storage facilities and gave me a deeper insight into the inner workings of the ship.  Even though I’m sure they made sure everything was ‘ship shape’ in advance, I was still able to discover some things about the cruise industry that weren’t so pure.

I cover this stuff on my blog not just to take a swipe at Norwegian Cruise Lines, but to increase pressure on the entire industry to prioritise environmental considerations in their operations.   Similar coverage has led to improvements in discharges at sea and recycling among other things.

To be fair to NCL, according to Friends of the Earth’s Cruise Ship Environmental Report Card the company rates among the most environmentally friendly cruise lines, getting a “B-” overall.  Of course this grade is relative, and it is staggering to think that most cruise lines perform worse than the Jewel, given what I saw and heard during my 11 days at sea.

During the tour I had a chance to interview the captain and the environmental officer on board about issues such as whale strikes and carbon emissions, two of the many unsavory aspects of the cruise industry.  Indeed I detected not a little bit of discomfort when I brought up these touchy subjects.

The Captain had some interesting opinions on climate change...

The Captain had some interesting opinions on climate change...

First up was a chance to meet the captain on the bridge.   After a presentation of the instrument and navigation equipment, we had a chance to ask questions.    I asked, “Captain, surely you are aware of the recent unfortunate incident where a cruise ship arrived in Vancouver harbour with a dead endangered whale impaled on its bow.   What do you do to avoid killing or injuring marine mammals while at sea?”  He admitted that radar was powerless to detect whales, and a visual scan of the sea, together with last minute attempts at course changes were all they could do to avoid the carnage.  You can imagine it’s not easy to change the course of a massive ship, and he acknowledged whale strikes were probably quite common and “really unfortunate.”  Even aside from the discharges, emissions, and waste inherent in cruising, there is no doubt that, unseen beneath the waves, the hull of a cruise ship the size of the Jewel is striking and its propellers are mutilating a large number of whales, porpoises, and other marine life. If fishing fleets are equipped with sonar to detect schools of fish, I don’t see why cruise ships can’t use the same technology to detect marine mammals and avoid them.

Where the reality struggles to meet the rhetoric: Port of Halifax

Where the reality struggles to meet the rhetoric: Port of Halifax

I also asked the Captain about carbon emissions, about the fact that the Jewel emits more than one tonne of carbon into the atmosphere every minute. His answers were very revealing.   I asked him what NCL was doing to reduce this major climate impact, and he replied “that it was up to the oil companies to produce fuel with less carbon” and “the government should reduce taxes on fuel” which- to anyone who understands the nature of the climate crisis- represents a significant and dangerous misunderstanding of the nature of the problem.   Clearly he was confusing carbon dioxide with carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide or particulate pollution.  The only thing that would help reduce emissions of carbon dioxide would be to use less fuel, to make the engines and on board energy use more efficient.  Or perhaps use natural gas to power the engines, though they were not built to burn CH4.  And of course lowering taxes on fuel would just reduce any incentive to conserve.

A floating Las Vegas, courtesy of cheap bunker oil...

A floating Las Vegas, courtesy of cheap bunker oil...

The waste of energy on board is staggering.  When in port at Halifax, we were walking back to the ship at night and the Jewel was lit up like a Christmas tree, her smokestacks belching burnt bunker fuel smoke, doing nothing good for the lungs of the residents of Halifax nor the global climate.  Some ports have now installed electrical hook ups so that cruise ships need not run their engines for power while at port, but of course the emissions are just being transferred from the ship’s engines to a power plant, most likely in some deprived neighborhood nearby.

It’s scary that ignorance of the nature of climate change still permeates senior staff of companies like NCL.  In the year 2009 there is no excuse for this.

It’s not just energy that is wasted aboard cruise ships.  According to the environmental officer on board, the Jewel disposes over 2500 gallons of food overboard per day– more than one gallon of food waste per day going to “feed the fishes” as their glib environmental program proclaims.

Roughly one gallon of food per day is tossed overboard for every passenger aboard the Jewel, an incredible waste

Roughly one gallon of food per day is tossed overboard for every passenger aboard the Jewel, an incredible waste

Most of this doesn’t come from plate scrapings but from the inherent waste from ‘freestyle’ buffet dining.  After four hours, everything is thrown away.   This lack of respect for the true value of food is only possible because of bargain basement oil making food production artificially cheap.  The whole enterprise is based on cheap oil and unconstrained carbon emissions.  NCL, like many other industries, has its head buried in the sand, and is particularly vulnerable to rises in oil prices and limits on carbon.  It not only serves the environment for passenger ship companies to make significant changes in their operations to reduce waste, it’s also sensible from an economic perspective.

As far as solid waste is concerned, it appears that NCL does a decent job recycling the ‘easy’ stuff like cans and bottles, but chooses to incinerate quite a bit that could be recycled, like cardboard and paper- even 10% of plastic waste, which leads to some pretty nasty emissions like dioxins.

The chemicals produced on board are pretty shocking too.   They have a huge photography business on board the ship, with staffers snapping photos of you many times during the cruise.  All of these shots are printed out and displayed for sale, whether you buy them or not.   According to the photo staff, only about 2% of the photos are ever bought, with 98% being thrown away.   This causes a huge amount of unnecessary photochemical and paper waste.

When Leah and I were standing in the queue to disembark at Lerwick, we overheard a woman who mentioned that there was a bad smell coming from her drain.   She had reported this to the staff, who came and poured a large amount of bleach in a vain attempt to eliminate the smell.  The outlet of the sinks goes to the grey water systems, and it is very likely that chlorine bleach is making its way directly into the ocean.  I asked the environmental officer about this incident and ‘whether it was NCL policy to dump bleach down the drains.’  He said no it wasn’t and that he would investigate.

Is it the 'end of the line' for seafood within a generation or two if we continue on as we are?

Is it the 'end of the line' for seafood within a generation or two if we continue on as we are?

There is no doubt that our poisoned, over-fished oceans are in serious trouble.  I keep meaning to see the film “End of the Line,” a wake up call about this growing crisis.  According to the film, the oceans will essentially be devoid of most edible fish within about forty years if we continue overfishing and abusing our oceans.  NCL claims to ‘meet or beat’ environmental regulations, but clearly the reality is failing to meet the rhetoric.

The tactics that NCL (and most other cruise lines) use to extract money from their passengers are pretty revolting. It was clear that they depend heavily on the extras charged on board: drinks, gambling, specialty restaurants, shore excursions, and bingo.   Especially Bingo.   A Dutch guy who I met calculated that they take in about $10,000 from retirees hoping to win big, but award only 4 prizes of $250.  A tidy profit of nearly $9000 per game.

I am proud to say that my total onboard bill came to the tidy sum of $0.   I figure I probably cost NCL money.   So, if that’s true, according to Chris Hutt’s comment on my earlier post about being responsible for carbon emissions in direct proportion to how much profit a company makes off of you, does that mean I have a negative carbon footprint?

The 1100 staff aboard the Jewel are paid slave wages and have virtually no job security

The 1100 staff aboard the Jewel are paid slave wages and have virtually no job security

According to the Dutch guy who spoke confidentially with several of the staff, the junior stewards make only about $500/ month (less than $6000/ year) including tips, work at least ten hours per day, and have to share a small cabin with 3 others.   Most are from the Philippines.   Once they finish 10 months with NCL, they have to go to a different company.   This is a fairly obvious way to avoid their employees unionising and demanding better pay and working conditions.   Most cruise ships, including the Jewel, are based in the Bahamas because of the country’s lax labor and environmental standards.

A metaphor for the cruise industry: an apple that we got from the 'Chocaholic Buffet' was beautifully dipped in chocolate, but when we cut it open it was rotten inside.

A metaphor for the cruise industry? An apple that we got from the 'Chocaholic Buffet' was beautifully dipped in chocolate, but when we cut it open it was rotten inside.

Overall, we were more nauseated on board the ship from the conspicuous consumption, waste, and the overt sense of entitlement from many of the passengers than we were from the rough seas.  Yet there remains the possibility of a future of ocean travel that places sustainability at the forefront, that recognizes the growing demand for alternatives to aviation, and provides a higher quality of travel experience, based on respect for local cultures, the ocean environment, and the proud history of seagoing.

It is this promise of a different kind of transatlantic voyage that will keep me using boats to get across the Atlantic, even if they’re not perfect environmentally, to speak out where I see abuse, and encourage others to ramp up pressure on the industry, to bring about the kind of low carbon, high quality voyages that we deserve.


The Problem with Sustrans: How a Grassroots Phenomenon Has Turned Into a Private Unaccountable Corporation

Oh Sustrans, what hath become of thee?

Oh Sustrans, what hath become of thee?

A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail about the Bristol Cycle Expressway, a proposed cycle path that could connect large areas of north Bristol directly to the Bristol and Bath Railway Path:


Be good to stay in the loop on this – as an interested cyclist who has two kids having to cross the Gloucester Rd on the way to / from school each day…. Thought of a cycle path alongside the Severn Beach line occurred to me a few years ago and I corresponded with Sustrans but they couldn’t be bothered thinking about anything other than reasons not to do it.



C’s e-mail got me wondering—how many times has someone with a good idea for a new cycle path contacted Sustrans and received this kind of response? How many perfectly good ideas have been thrown in the bin because of a bureaucratic lack of vision from those tasked with keeping that vision whole? How many opportunities have been lost and positive energy squandered?  I wonder….

This e-mail was received the same week as it was revealed by a Bristol councillor that an investigation is underway into Sustrans’ cozy relationship with the city, specifically their employees being seconded to the City Council for the Cycling City project, and exclusion of other charities and firms to win contracts from the £11.4 million budget.  Frankly, it’s too much to keep a lid on, and I felt like On the Level cannot ignore this issue any longer.

Because of these dispiriting experiences with Sustrans, I began to do some research into the organisation, speaking with former and current employees, co-founders, and doing research on the internet. Bear with me while I shatter some of your illusions about the UK’s “leading sustainable transport charity”….

Let me preface what I’m about to say with the following:

I am deeply grateful to John Grimshaw and others involved with Sustrans for creating the Bristol and Bath Railway Path– seemingly from sheer will, as well as the many other incredible rail-to-trail conversions that have enriched so many lives and communities throughout the UK.  I have several friends who work for Sustrans, and many of the organisation’s programs are truly positive contributions to people’s quality of life and transport choices.  Many well-meaning, passionate, and effective people work for Sustrans and my critique is in no way intended to diminish their work.   The following is directed primarily at the structure of the organisation itself.  This article may ruffle some feathers, but sometimes feathers need to be ruffled, and once in a while every organisation could do with some honest criticism.

CYCLEBAG and Sustrans’ Roots

From a modest, grassroots beginning as Bristol-based CYCLEBAG (Channel Your Calf and Leg Energy Bristol Action Group), a group of cyclists keen to restrain the inexorable growth of motor traffic and convert abandoned railways for cyclists’ use, Sustrans has now become a large corporate institution, with nearly 200 staff and 14 offices around the country, responsible for spending millions of pounds of public money channelled to them from central and regional government.

A charity is a fascinating entity.  It tends to thrive on the tension created between the status quo, and a significant element of the public who wants to change that status quo.   If the tension is relieved, by, for example, actually changing the status quo in some lasting and significant way, the charity has potentially put itself, and the hundreds of employees who depend on a paycheck every month, out of a job.  By actually succeeding in its mission, Sustrans might place its very existence on the line.  So as it turns out, what’s good for Sustrans is not necessarily good for the UK…..

Sustainability without Democracy?

It appears that I’m far from the only one who has serious reservations about Sustrans’ role in the movement for sustainable transport.  There are an increasing number of concerns including here, here and here, but they centre around this:  should a private charity with no accountability to the public or its membership (Sustrans calls them supporters) be given millions of taxpayer pounds every year without adequate consultation or oversight?

With the stakes so high in the fight against climate change, and with transport being the fastest growing source of emissions, can we really depend on Sustrans to bring about the change we so badly need?  Or have they become too complacent and corporate in recent years, losing their grip on the vision of a true National Cycle Network, terrified of taking on the Jeremy Clarksons of the world, afraid of conflict, afraid of their own success, paralyzed by the possibility of their failure…. What if people thought that Sustrans was watching the hens, when all along they’d been turning a blind eye as the foxes helped themselves through the back door of the henhouse?  What then?

Sadly, my own experience over the past two years living in the UK confirms C’s experience.  Several months ago, after I cycled from Reading to Bristol along the Kennet and Avon canal towpath, about 100 miles of gorgeous unspoiled countryside, but difficult to ride because of the muddy, rocky, and irregular pathway running alongside the canal, I rang up Sustrans’ Oxford office and volunteered to work toward a continuous high quality pathway along the entire Kennet and Avon from London to Bristol, potentially the first long distance completely off-road cycleway in the UK.  The corridor is there- all it really needs is some improved surfacing.  I spoke to Simon Pratt, their director and he basically said, “we don’t have the money, it’s not a high priority, no one would use it, and I’m really very busy at the moment- please go away.”

This is the kind of response you would expect from a local authority or their hired hacks, not a charity working to develop a National Cycle Network (NCN) and achieve a sustainable transport system. You would think Sustrans would be very eager to engage and work with advocates who are keen to work to improve the NCN.   Yet each time I’ve tried to volunteer with Sustrans, I have been met with indifference at best.

Sustrans and Bristol

It also turns out that very few Sustrans employees are personally involved in the Bristol Cycling Campaign-something I find very odd considering many of them live and cycle in Bristol.  In fact, it sometimes seems that Sustrans goes out of its way to ignore Bristol, as if to prove to other areas of the country that the City that hosts their headquarters curries no special favour. When plans for a bus rapid transit route threatened the Bristol-Bath Railway Path (Sustrans’ flagship facility) they were sluggish in responding to the threat, terrified of offending the local council, actually going on record in the Evening Post saying essentially that they had “no comment” about the plans.

Though the beast finally woke from its bloated lottery-money induced slumber and opposed the plan with some force, the damage had been done.  Thankfully, local activists stepped into the vacuum and formed Save the Railway Path, organised a 1000 strong march to the Council house that succeeded in getting the City Council to shelve the ill-conceived plans.  We know that Sustrans knew about the BRT plan as early as July 2007 if not earlier, yet they did nothing to alert others and provoke opposition. They only jumped on the bandwagon when it was clear that their credibility was on the line if they did nothing.

To Campaign or Not to Campaign?

So, with millions of pounds flowing into the organisation every year from government, Sustrans risks biting the hand that feeds it if it challenges the status quo too vociferously.   And after all, as Sustrans staff constantly remind you (even as the last polar iceberg melts and the reality of our fossil based transport system grows daily more nightmarish) they are not a campaign organisation.

This is backed up by those with a close familiarity with the organisation, who tell me that Sustrans has always been led by a small team of engineers- they love building stuff and solving problems, but they lack a vision of how to achieve a future with fewer cars, or of the strong cohesive communities that would result.  They also have a strong case of NIH (if it’s ‘not invented here’ we don’t want anything to do with it).  Hence the resistance to members of the public volunteering their own ideas.

As rangers, Sustrans has a trusting army of volunteers it can guide and control, but working with politically savvy campaigners means that Sustrans loses control, and might be seen as campaigning (god forbid). Confronting our car-addicted culture in any meaningful way is something Sustrans is clearly not prepared to do.

They are very prepared, however, to campaign on their own behalf, for the award of £50 million of lottery funding toward their Connect 2 project.  Last year, they mobilised their entire staff to successfully wage a campaign for £50 million (that will keep their small army of engineers in work for years to come), while drawing criticism from their opponents for heavy-handed and questionable campaign tactics.
Unfortunately some of the projects that were promised if Sustrans won the £50 million seem to now be falling through the cracks in Bristol.

The National Cycle “Network”: Fear of Change, Fear of Conflict, and Fear of Death on the Road

Safety standards have been sacrificed for the illusion of a complete network...

Safety standards have been sacrificed for the illusion of a complete network...

As it does so often, it boils down to fear.  Fear of losing funding and putting two hundred people out of work.   Fear of confronting the government over its disastrous short-sighted selfish transport policies.  Fear of being at odds with landowners, Network Rail, British Waterways, and local authorities.

Historically, when a NCN route has come into conflict with the aforementioned, Sustrans too often simply gives up and directs cyclists onto country lanes which go miles out of the way, up steep hills, or along busy roadways.

Sustrans proudly claims in their annual report that:

“The National Cycle Network is a great success story. 12,000 miles have been completed so far, a third of which is traffic-free.”

To those who have tried to actually use the National Cycle Network to travel throughout the UK on a bicycle, the Network begins to look like a desktop study with little regard taken of gradients, directness, or signage.  It appears that any route will do if it looks OK on a map – if the route is longer, it adds miles to the total so it looks impressive to funders, even if it means Granny can’t pedal to her local bus stop.

Chris Hutt, who was involved with the founding of Sustrans, told me the following:

“Most of the NCN is on-road. During the push to achieve the millennium target they abandoned a defined safety standard and adopted an interim standard (ie. anything goes). At this point the NCN network ceased to mean anything very much. Odd fragments of off-road paths, some good, some poor, some an embarrassment, joined up with notional on-road routes to create the illusion of a national network. Sustrans have compromised on the crucial standards for the sake of getting the miles clocked up – exactly the ‘more is better’ mentality that underlies much that is wrong with our culture.”

That's 9 extra miles of the National Cycle Network!  No extra charge!

That's 9 extra miles of the National Cycle Network! No extra charge!

The claim that “a third of the network is traffic-free” is also misleading.   This includes a large number of substandard side paths that run along busy roads or motorways, where cyclists and walkers are burdened with toxic air, a noisy environment- not to mention hazardous crossings of side roads where non-motorised traffic is de-prioritised.   Doesn’t really seem like a traffic-free environment, unless you’re sitting at a desk in an office in Bristol drawing lines on a map……

The “On-Road” vs. “Off-Road” Debate

Speaking of busy roadways and cycling, there has been a longstanding and simmering dispute between the “on-road” philosophy generally aligned with the CTC, and the “off-road” philosophy who gravitate toward Sustrans.  In reality- of course- this ridiculous, self-indulgent dispute is outdated, as all but a very few cyclists want safe, direct, pleasant and high quality routes whether they are free of motor vehicles or not (of course all else being equal, a non-motorised facility is preferable).

Well, the problem comes when the presence of cycle paths is used as justification to diminish the rights of cyclists and pedestrians to use the public roads.   Unfortunately Sustrans has contributed to this dangerous bias.  A man I met at a recent conference on cycle campaigning (where Sustrans were conspicuously absent) conveyed the following story to me:

“A local cyclist, Daniel Cadden, was pulled over by the police in Telford for riding on a B road with a parallel cycle path, and charged with inconsiderate cycling.   His case went to court and was featured in the local press, where a  Sustrans ranger wrote a letter ‘apologising on behalf of all cyclists’ for Daniel’s ‘irresponsible behaviour.’  This apology may very well have influenced the judge who initially found Daniel guilty….”

Even though his conviction was ultimately overturned, the damage was done by Sustrans, who have seemingly internalised the cyclist inferiority complex.

This opinion that cyclists have no right to ride on busier roads – and if they do so are inviting legal and/or physical punishment – is not limited to isolated individuals within Sustrans; it comes from the very top.  A friend of mine told me about the time he met John Grimshaw, the former CEO of Sustrans:

“I was telling (John) about a ride I had done on the National Cycle Network – because of the poor signage I had missed a turn and ended up on a busy A road that was narrow and heavily trafficked.   I was terrified for my life because of the fast traffic and the narrow road, and drivers were honking their horns at me.  I was surprised when John rebuked me: ‘It’s people like you who give cyclists a bad name.”

It seems that on balance, Sustrans may be contributing to the negative perception of cyclists and making our roads less safe for those on two wheels.  Most of their work reinforces the notion that cyclists shouldn’t be on the roads, which of course strengthens their hand in seeking funding for off-road routes.  Unfortunately the ultimate price is paid by regular cyclists who depend on the road network to get them home safely.  A case of the fox watching over the hens?

Has Oil Wealth Compromised Sustrans?
merchants-crest-cutout shell_oil

Who actually runs Sustrans and makes decisions about how our public money is spent?  A board of 11 trustees runs the “company” and these 11 actually appoint their own successors, meaning that there is virtually no democratic influence over the policies of the organisation.  One of the board members is a man named Chris Curling.   Curling belongs to the powerful and secretive Bristol based Merchant Venturers, a largely rich, white, and male organisation that has its roots in the slave trade.  They have an enormous amount of behind the scenes political power in Bristol (as evidenced by City Council corruption revealed by a recent FOI request).

The Venturers have nearly £1 million invested in Shell, an oil company guilty of environmental destruction, human rights violations, and complicity in the murder of Ken Saro Wiwa, and eight other Nigerian environmental activists.  The Merchant Venturers sign off on their accounts on November 10th every year, the same day that these activists were hanged for organising popular resistance to Shell’s crimes against the Nigerian people and environment.  Is this just an odd coincidence?  Curling’s presence on the Sustrans board raises some troubling questions indeed for an organisation supposedly dedicated to promoting sustainable travel and reducing our reliance on petrol.

What to Do?

I say enough is enough.  We need an open, democratic organisation to boldly advocate a set of transport and planning reforms in the UK: compulsory purchase orders (CPO’s, or eminent domain for American readers) for the development of an integral cycling network in the UK.   It’s all very well and good that Mr. and Mrs. Smith use their section of abandoned railway as a parking space for their Land Rover, but guess what?  Human beings kind of need safe, carbon neutral migration routes and like the millions of badgers, foxes, rabbits, and birds, we’re growing increasingly fed up with becoming roadkill…..

So what is the solution to the sad state of Sustrans? According to employees, staff morale is at an all time low.  Not an ideal situation to say the least.  However, it seems there is now an opportunity to reinvent itself with the recent departure of founder and visionary John Grimshaw. I’m beginning to think Sustrans should simply merge with the Department for Transport, become the Department for Sustainable Transport, carry out the programs it carries out, but be governed by MP’s in the House of Commons not an unelected, self-appointed board with no accountability to the public.

The other alternative is that they get their chutzpah on and become an actual campaigning organisation- pushing government and the private sector to make the necessary changes we need to reduce our fossil fuel dependent transport system- promoting an ambitious program of continuous non-motorised travel-ways along canals and railways, and return to the spirit that galvanised a whole generation to believe in the bike to deliver us personally and culturally to a new world of freedom and mobility via two wheels.  That’s the image they convey and a goal I suspect their supporters believe them to be working toward.

If it was up to me, I’d encourage them to pursue the latter option, but it will necessarily involve conflict, and for a conflict-averse corporation like Sustrans, frankly I’m not sure they’re up for the fight.  Be that as it may, Sustrans should at least be honest about their current role, and if they continue to solicit donations along cycle paths, let their membership (sorry- supporters) have a democratic voice in the policies of the organisation.

Until that happens, I would discourage anyone from donating money to Sustrans.  Why not support the more democratic CTC or your local cycle campaign instead? Giving money to Sustrans as it stands now is like adding a little extra on top of your council tax bill every quarter.

And for god’s sake, Sustrans- stop pouring cold water on creative suggestions from the public to improve the National Cycle Network.  If you’re not willing to do battle with the entrenched interests that are obstructing real change around transport issues, at least get out of the way so that those who are up for the fight can get on with it.

Sustrans were offered the opportunity to be interviewed and to provide comment for this article, but they declined.  They were also sent a list of questions to clarify their policies, but so far six months later I have yet to receive a reply…..