In this and upcoming Connected to Place blog posts, I will explore the idea of living connected to place and conditions that support this orientation to everyday life. Locally-based living involves our transportation, food, home energy, water and overall consumption choices. California Academy of Science’s newly launched Planet Vision educates about the aggregate impact of these personal choices on the livability of our planet with the goal to “put environmental solutions into action.” Jared Blumenfeld’s new podcast, Podship Earth, provides an antidote to “doom and gloom” environmental reporting and shares stories of how people are “healing our relationship with nature”. (Check out the recent Week 6 episode on how people experienced the recent fires in Sonoma and Napa Counties and are now starting over, in parallel with the regeneration of nature.) Living connected to place is about each of us being part of environmental solutions and healing our relationship with nature. Living connected to place is also about strengthening our relationships with each other and ourselves, enhancing community and individual well-being. This is particularly important in our everyday transportation choices.
“Most of us think of transportation as a means to an end, but the way we move from one place to another has profound effects on natural resources, community, and personal well-being.”
- Liz Maw, Chief Executive Officer, Net Impact
Transportation accounts for the largest percentage of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE) at state (California- 39%), regional (Bay Area- 40%) and community levels, and the greatest source of such emissions for the average American. Traffic congestion is a substantial and growing problem in the Bay Area and urban areas across the country. Living car-lite (i.e. minimizing car use) and opting to use public transit, bike and walk for travel helps reduce transportation-related emissions and relieve traffic congestion. Moving around these ways in the community promotes interaction, a sense of community and a breaking down of social divisions that plague our country. Exercise and time outside are also part of living car-lite, supporting mental and physical health.
Shifting to electric vehicles, where electricity is generated from renewable sources, helps reduce transportation-related emissions. However, a different type of car does little to address the impact of car dependence on limiting the time we spend active, outside and interacting with others in our communities. Car-lite living can play a pivotal role in improving environmental, community and personal well-being.
To support car-lite living at scale will require a significant change in priorities. A focus on people over cars can help us begin to unravel a transportation infrastructure and culture that has been built around cars. It’s time to build political will that prioritizes walking, biking and public transportation over cars in our cities and communities.
Transportation infrastructure in our country largely provides space for the movement and parking of personal vehicles. When traffic congestion worsens, the response has often been to widen roads and add lanes for automobiles. Extensive research, such as that conducted by UC Davis Scholar Susan Handy, has shown that building bigger roads results in induced demand and more traffic, in the short and long term. The unpacking of the tragedy of an under-construction, pedestrian bridge collapse in Florida earlier this month, as Angie Schmitt reports, gives further reason to adjust our approach to transportation infrastructure. The bridge was built to provide Florida International University students safe walking access over an 8-lane road to campus. Pedestrian safety improvements could have included measures to narrow crossing distances and reduce speeding and likely for much less cost than building the $14 million bridge. The decision, however, was to not alter the flow of motor vehicles including during construction in which a quick-build approach was used to reduce the time period of disruption to traffic.
Many cities are working on ways to better provide multi-modal transportation infrastructure (see next section) that does not prioritize cars to the detriment of all other modes. Dedicated bus lanes and bus rapid transit make taking public transportation more appealing, as travel time is reduced when busses or other public transit are not stuck in automobile traffic. Protected bike lanes, wider sidewalks and bike boulevards provide safe and efficient means for people to engage in active modes of travel. Supportive conditions for walking and biking also support the use of public transit when involving access to transit stops.
The challenge with these changes is that they often require reducing lanes and parking for automobiles and can quickly erupt into status quo resistance. Finding ways for people to experience the benefit of alternatives when not hindered by car traffic is one among other measures to make this transition happen in a less adversarial way. We all seek to travel safely, efficiently and comfortably. To live car-lite, we need supportive conditions that address those needs.
Prioritizing Safety for Walking and Biking
About 6,000 pedestrians and over 800 cyclists in the United States were killed last year in crashes that involved cars. Media attention is often directed to fatalities related to plane and train crashes which are far less in number and frequency. Almost no attention is paid to the 18-19 pedestrian and cyclist deaths, on average, everyday on our streets. Self-driving cars may be part of the solution to reducing deadly car accidents but safety of these vehicles is not yet proven and continued overall reliance on cars will not reduce traffic congestion, be an efficient use of energy compared to other modes, or enhance community and individual health.
We know how to prevent these deaths such as through fully implementing the Vision Zero approach to change our streets and human behavior. We need to demand that changes to our streets happen. Promising developments are underway. Caltrans, the California Department of Transportation, started an Active Transportation Program in 2013 that has funded $1.1 billion in bicycle and pedestrian projects since its inception, reflecting “ a cultural shift towards mainstreaming bicycle and pedestrian modes into the state transportation system”(article on CalTrans, Strategic Management Plan by Melanie Curry) . Some of the funded projects include: added sidewalks around local schools and a cross-town bike path (Paradise, CA); the Go Human campaign in Southern California supporting cultural change and encouraging walking and biking; and bike paths, bike lanes and sidewalks in many communities. These infrastructure investments, as reported by Melanie Curry, “send an important message that the safety of people who choose not to drive is just as important as that of people in cars”.
We also don’t need to wait for all the infrastructure to be put into place. There is great safety in numbers. Routes and pathways for walking and biking exist, to some extent, in all communities. The more people walk and bike in these places, the greater chance drivers will see them and drive slower, reducing accidents.
Coalition Building and Political Leadership
To change our transportation infrastructure and make our streets safe and multi-modal requires coordinated effort among many organizations and agencies. Coalitions are taking root to do just this. In San Mateo County, the Transportation Equity Allied Movement Coalition (TEAMC) is engaging over 20 organizations in “building power for those historically underrepresented in transportation decision-making” and supporting measures to improve and increase investment in public transportation. Vision Zero SF brings together city officials, city employees and community members in a collaborative effort across San Francisco to create safer streets through engineering, enforcement, education and evaluation.
Local leaders like Emily Beach (Burlingame City Council and San Mateo County Transportation Authority Board of Directors) are needed to provide a vision for improving the quality of life through car-lite living and how we get there. In a recent opinion piece, Emily explains how creating supportive conditions for walking and biking are cost-effective (she compares, for example, the $16M cost for 44 proposed bicycle/pedestrian projects to the $90-160M cost of single new highway interchange) but do require community support and political will. Thank you to Emily and the many leaders in our region who are building political will for these changes and working to prioritize the safety and convenience of alternatives to cars for getting around, providing great benefit to individuals, communities and the environment.