Monday October 23rd 2017

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‘Transportation’ Archives

What could be…

An exciting day here at Sustainable Thoughts:  our first guest blogger.  Josh Foster, a friend and former colleague traveled to Europe over the summer and was amazed at how easy it was to get around, mostly without the need for a vehicle.  I asked him to share his experience with us.

Josh is a self-described policy wonk and climate science “groupie” with over 15 years working on adaptation to climate change (working on how to deal with the changes caused by our rapidly changing climate; learn the basics here). He spent 13 years at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) improving the  communication of climate information to decision makers and the public. He now works with local governments to enhance their resilience to climate change impacts and to ensure adaptation is on the national policy agenda.

First, my little prologue:

For most of us in the U.S. it is hard to imagine life without a car.  The car is wrapped up in our country’s history, our popular culture, and for many, it makes up part of our personal identity.  Owning a car is a national birth right.  Our landscape is defined by the privately owned vehicle.  Thousands of miles of highways.  Shopping centers located miles from where we live with massive parking lots.  Zoning laws that require us to drive to go from work, to school, to find a loaf of bread.  Mile after mile of strip malls and low density development.

This reality did not happen overnight.  Our government has invested many billions of dollars since the 1950s to subsidize road building around the country.  Our taxation system encourages the discovery and use of massive amouts of oil needed to fuel this system.  The military is used with greater frequency to protect oil supply lines.

If you live anywhere outside of a large city in America your life would be very hard without a vehicle.

Using a 1.5 ton piece of machinary to move one person around is stunningly unsustainable.  The carbon emissions that are destroying the climate.  The pollution that kills thousands each year.  Thousands more who die in accidents.  The material use.  The mining.  The toxic chemicals.

Any proposition to reduce the use of cars is seen as an attack on the American way of life.  Many can only imagine a life of extreme inconvenience and suffering.  A loss of independence and freedom.  It is easy to understand why — public transportation in the US is typically woeful and unreliable.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Many societies have created public transporation systems that are clean, efficient and useful.  People get to where they need to go with minimal delay and discomfort.  These systems are many times more efficient than the one we have in America.

Cars are not part of a sustainable future.  It is that simple.

Below is a view to world that could be.  That already is.  When do we catch up?

From Josh Foster:

It’s mid-afternoon on the Thursday before the Memorial Day weekend May 2010. I am crawling along in pre-Holiday bumper-to-bumper Beltway traffic on my way to Washington Dulles International Airport. My goal is to fly to Bonn, Germany to speak at the Resilient Cities 2010 – 1st World Congress on Cities and Adaptation to Climate Change. The Congress is a first ever, global gathering dedicated to sharing the latest scientific findings, effective approaches and state-of-the-art programs on climate change adaptation and resilience-building in cities and urbanized areas.

I had left my condo in Cleveland Park, DC three hours before my flight for the 45 minute drive to Dulles Airport—ostensibly to “beat the traffic”, but found my fellow drivers had the same idea regarding their long-weekend vacations—2 days in advance! Reaching the Dulles access road running 17 miles to the airport traffic continues to crawl along behind trucks hauling dirt for the future Silver Metro Line connecting Falls Church to Dulles…hints of a better future. Arriving at the airport I park in the sprawling satellite economy lot full of cars…and board my first public transportation…the shuttle bus to the terminal. On the bus I reflect that it’s still overall cheaper, faster, and more convenient to drive to an airport 35 miles from downtown Washington, DC, park, and fly internationally than to take a cab or bus to Dulles, or Metro to Washington National—the “downtown” DC airport—and connect to Europe via another domestic airport. Essentially the incentives embedded in the design of my hometown’s urban system encourages my less sustainable behavior…and here I am one who has dedicated my career to encouraging better.

Arriving at the check-in line I find 500 of my fellow travelers also waiting to enter the airport system. Needless to say, I missed my flight…reason given, “traffic congestion,” resulting in a sage nod from the rebooking agent — and the need to return home for the night and do it all again the next day with associated expenditure of time and resources.

The next day, as we are in the glide path into Frankfurt Airport, and I am looking across green farm fields around the city studded with the iconic towers of windmills, blades turning lazily in the available breeze. After clearing customs, I follow signs over a foot bridge directly into the adjacent train station to catch the high-speed rail to Bonn. In about 20 minutes I am cruising along at 232 mph past the same farm fields and windmills I saw from the plane. Near Bonn, some obstruction in the track sends us back to Frankfurt—but redundancy in the dense track system allows an alternate scenic route along the Rhine River — beautiful towns, castles, and water but also working cargo barges plying their trade. From the train I also notice the ubiquity of individual and community gardens growing vegetables in almost every yard and town.

Arriving at Bonn Station, I exit within a stones throw of dense light tram-rail and bus lines. Running late, I grab a cab to the conference center where food, lodging, and facilities are all centralized around an open-air garden and pond. A nearby 700-acre park allows space for early morning jogs overlooking the Rhine intersecting a miles long foot-path along the river that doubles as a bicycle commuter route. Going downtown for the evening we walk to the nearby subway station for a 20-minute ride. After a fun evening of fine food, drink, and fellowship we return to the conference center in a mini-van taxi that fits our entire group of 8. Upon leaving Bonn, I take a taxi to the nearby city of Cologne to visit a friend, and then a train to the airport…flying to Vienna, Austria.

On the glide path into the airport in Vienna, I again see the green farmland around the city studded with windmills. I am staying with a friend in a suburb surrounded by vineyards and walking trails…each vineyard with it’s own local restaurant. Groceries and many other amenities line the local dense network of streets and houses. An urgent trip to his daughters school to deliver a science project means a 5-minute walk to a light rail-tram, followed by a bus ride, and a short walk to the school. His kids ride public transit to school daily and children as young as 5 ride unsupervised. Going downtown from the school we board a bus, to a subway station, and exit in the heart of the city. Adjacent to the subway exit is a trash to energy incinerator that is high-tech, clean, and a local icon having been designed as a work of art. Walking around the Viennese “old city” it is nearly carless…and I notice that parking necessitates a special permit at $10s per hour. We return home hopping a bus, to tram, and walk in the door a few minutes later. When we go hiking the next day a bus that passes every 10 minutes takes us to the top of a nearby range of hills with great views and networks of trails through miles of parkland that are all still inside the city limits.

My next stop is Helsinki, Finland. Exiting the airport terminal I board a bus (leaving twice per hour) for the 50-minute ride downtown. The bus arrives at the center city train station surrounded by light tram-lines and bike paths with streets sparsely crowded with cars. After a fine dinner near the train station we hop a frequent bus out to his apartment in the suburb.  He does not have a car. His apartment complex is near the ocean and surrounded by forest. It has a grocery store, a child-care center, and a health-care clinic — most apartment complexes have these facilities. And these are the “cheap” apartments. My friend’s wife was in the hospital for 2 months—and they only paid $500 out of pocket. In the morning, I notice numerous pedestrian bridges over roads and bike paths in and around the complex. Buses passing through leave for downtown every 10 minutes. A short walk takes us to nature trails threading through woods, across cliffs with great views of the ocean, and through estuaries full of waterfowl. He rides the bus to work—an office building overlooking the water.

Upon leaving my friend’s on the way home to the US, I continue on downtown by bus. I kill time at a sidewalk café in the sun with a coffee and pastry overlooking a parkland running between main thouroughfaries. I reflect that skillful urban design, public transportation, and a willingness to pay collectively to provide for the common good are a real kind of security. It is also gratifying to know that there are countries in the world that are seeking a path toward sustainability while also providing a high quality of life. There are those in the US that would call it Socialism as if it was a pejorative…but as I board the bus to the airport, I think it feels like freedom…and that there is a different way to live…

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