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Accidental Sustainability and Why We Can't Sustain It
Sarah Rich, 30 Apr 07
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For those of you who haven't heard yet, a portion of a highly trafficked freeway interchange in the San Francisco Bay Area collapsed early yesterday morning when a gasoline tanker lost control and exploded. The flames apparently reached temperatures nearing 3000F degrees, and a structure we ordinarily trust to be quite stable turned from an overpass into an asphalt waterslide.

To say that this event will disrupt traffic flow is a profound understatement. The truck happened to explode where three major highways converge and split off (aptly named "The Maze"), forming almost all of the direct routes to and from cities throughout the East Bay, as well as San Francisco. After yesterday, it's not just inconvenient to get through there; it's impossible. From a commuter's point-of-view, this is catastophic. But from the environment's point of view, it might be quite the opposite.

Today, all public transit in the Bay is free. You'd have to be insane to try to drive any distance, and so even the die-hard drivers will ride a bus, take train or BART, or telecommute. On an average day, over 200,000 cars pass through The Maze. How many today?

It will be months before this damage can be fully repaired, and when it's done, reading through the daily air quality reports from, say, the beginning of April to the end of September 2007, will be pretty telling. I'd venture to guess that air pollution levels will plummet -- at least for a little while. And I'd like to think that maybe some of the former commuters will discover, through forced use of transit, that it's not such a bad way to get around (some others may just move closer to work). I'm sure there will be at least a few converts once the debacle is over, but more than likely, a lot of people will grab their keys and hit the road as soon as it's open. Thus, much of the benefit (from a traffic miles/ air quality standpoint) is likely to be temporary.

What does this say about our ability to make immediate, drastic change? When given no other option, it appears we're superbly capable. So much money and effort goes into wrangling public cooperation towards baby steps, when the truth is, we can do a lot better, a lot faster, for a lot less money (repairing melted overpasses aside).

This has happened before. In his recent New York Times piece, Tom Friedman noted an example from Beijing, in which city officials mandated that in preparation for an international summit, Beijing's air would be cleaned at high speed by removing 500,000 automobiles from the streets. Apparently nearly as many were voluntarily kept off the road. In a pinch, the smog thinned and visitors enjoyed [relatively] pleasant air quality during their stay. Upon their departure, however, nearly a million tailpipes were up and spewing again, and Beijing's air turned back to black.

Similarly, in Stockholm, the success of an experimental traffic toll didn't seem to matter much to city officials, who declared it a "trial" and discontinued it, in spite of public approval. The toll resulted in less traffic and greater mobility; fewer emissions and more transit users, but the whole thing came down anyway, and Stockholm's congestion and pollution went back to normal.

In Seattle a battle rages on over how to replace an aged and unsafe viaduct along the waterfront. Any of the options will result in a decade of massive disruption on a road that supports more than 100,000 cars each day (and growing yearly). Seattleites don't like any of the options, due in part to a number of environmentally irresponsible plans, the obstruction of a beautiful urban waterfront near the famous Pike Place Market, and of course, being forced into alternative routes to their old familiar commute. But any way you slice it, the city will have to figure out a way to get people where they need to go during years of viaduct reconstruction. Which means the city will be establishing a functional temporary alternative to the viaduct altogether. So...why not just establish that alternative, keep it permanently, and get rid the viaduct, leaving free urban space where a giant concrete overpass formerly stood?

Apparently, sustainable measures taken for reasons not directly pertaining to sustainability just don't register as being a smart, viable, immediate solutions to ongoing problems. We prove to ourselves time and again that we can do more to tackle pollution, unsnarl urban roads and make cities more livable. We can even do it as fast as the accelerating threat of climate change. Or faster. But happy accidents are treated as accidents nonetheless and we shuffle back to baby steps. In the Bay, there's no question that the collapsed overpass must be righted and reattached, because it's a broken link in a generally functional chain. But maybe there's a way to sustain the modified behavior of Bay Area residents such that a healed highway doesn't send novice transit users running back to their cars.

What do you think?

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i think it's good thinking. if you take the case of that recent civil engineers' report, there's a ton of national infrastructure that needs fixing, so whether or not it's been turned into a temporary dali tribute, there's still this outstanding question of what to do and not much reason to pretend it's 1957 all over again. this is what the goal-setting delay at the top level is costing us: disorganization and old thinking at the maintenance and planning level.

it's probably the apollo alliance that needs to hear arguments like this the most; they're the closest to the lobbies that want to build! big! stuff! regardless of how well it serves us in the future. people here probably don't have nearly that much day-to-day influence.

what strikes me about the great melting — other than how nice it is that it didn't make dead people, so you can joke about it relentlessly, guilt-free — is it's a fantastic opportunity to get feedback on trip-planning software. we're not where we need to be on having people be able to get door-to-door, simply, all arranged by their phones, regardless of how they want to travel.

but the 511 service is very good and if we can integrate that with a few more items, like reservations, mode comparisons by time and price, and GPS-based pedestrian guidance from station to destination, that'd rock.

Posted by: hibiscus on 30 Apr 07

What would it take for a government (local, lets say) to implement a policy or mandate that only allows people to drive their personal vehicles say 4 out of 5 days of the week between the hours of 9-5, where the 1 day they're not allowed to drive they have to use public transporatation to get from point A to B and back. It would effectively remove 1/5th of the cars from use on any given day of the week, and it's easy enough to implement...some color code on your license (since everyone has to have one) would be a sufficient mechanism to distribute the 'burden', and maybe even enforce it with random checkpoints or use some automated machine like a toll both to handle the verification.
I'm sure something is obviously wrong with this (what?) but even if you reduce it to one day a month (say the date your license expires) it would remove a significant number of vehicles from the daily rotation, *or* force people to carpool...

Posted by: Kwan on 30 Apr 07

Our entire culture is unsustainable.Forty years ago Buckminster Fuller informed us that humans have only two choices-utopia or oblivion.What he didn't say is that we must all choose utopia together and that the default is always oblivion.The Boddisattvas also say that Buddha can't enter nirvana until all sentient beings enter at the same time.I think they might be on to something.

Posted by: bobbyo on 30 Apr 07

The economic and quality-of-life problems over the next months will far outweigh any environmental benefit.

Goods still need to be transported into and out of the city. Many workers in the service industry, from plumbers to salespeople, can't take public transit to go between clients' sites. They have no choice but to use their trucks and vans. Because of this, the cost-of-living will go up in an already expensive area.

Now that the free public transit is over, lots of people are already driving again. Call them greedy or lazy if you want. Many will probably make changes over the coming months and years. But they have no short-term choice but to drive.

I don't even think there will be a huge environmental boost. All those trucks and whatnot will have to take other routes, make them more congested, and get worse gas mileage. They'll have to take detours through neighborhoods that aren't accustomed to that kind of emissions.

I'd like to see much more public transit and clean air. I also think it's inspiring how well humans adapt to sudden changes.

But that's no reason to put the cart in front of the horse. If there are other long-term methods to tackle these serious problems, implement those instead of the state just closing down a usable road for a few months to encourage alternatives. (I don't know if you're suggesting that.)

When you implement ideas like Kwan's, there are bound to be serious consequences, most of them unforeseen and unintended. That's why I prefer the simplest solution possible, like gradually adding a carbon tax at the lowest level and letting the remainder of the supply chain adjust prices as they see fit.

Sure, people (including me) hate taxes. But a tax is a lot easier to implement than telling people that they can't drive by themselves at such and such times.

Posted by: gee on 1 May 07

I think realisticly most of us do need the convenience of personal transport to most places in the US (NYC is the exception)

But there is no reason, other than protecting the oil industry and the gasoline car manufacturers, why we have to continue to drive vehicles that are destroying the planet.

There is a bill in the Senate to give a $6000 subsidy to us to buy an electric vehicle. There are a whole bunch of EV options coming by 2010, listed here, with cost/benefit ratios for driving evs:

EVs to Get $6000 Subsidy

I would recomend everyone call the congress switchboard to ask each Senator to vote yes on this bll:(202) 224 3121

Posted by: Susan K on 1 May 07

You can generally expect people to act in their own self-interest and at the moment, rational self-interest moves people to use cars. If you want people to switch to more sustainable methods of moving around, you have to make that choice the easy choice, the rational choice. Driving to work takes me 30-45 minutes. Taking mass transit to work would take around an hour and a half. My job is in a more expensive area than where I live, so living closer to the job would cost me far more than the extra cost of using a car. Sustainability is important to me, but not so much that I want to spend 1/24th of my life for minimal gains towards it.

We use cars because cars are incredibly convenient and given a choice between other more sustainable options and driving, we'd rather drive. Stressing public transportation is not the answer, instead we should concentrate on making the path of least resistance (using cars) as sustainable as possible through new cleaner car technologies.

Posted by: Michael Young on 1 May 07

from today's SF Chronicle, an article about poor Bay Area air quality reported in the "State of the Air: 2007" air quality report card --

"Smog better, particulates not, report says" by Jane Kay -

Posted by: matt waxman on 1 May 07

As a former resident of the Bay Area I am very familiar with the failed structure. Despite the fact that mass transit use is higher there than anywhere on the West Coast the existing system was a hairs breadth from collapse already.

What people need are real solutions that get them and their stuff out of cars and to wherever it needs to go. It has to move people and freight from point to point without tearing everything up like the BART installation did. It exists. It's called a monorail.

Before you snicker and quote the Simpsons look at these links of existing monorails in Japan. Shonan monorail pics Note how tight the space the monorail fits in. Aerobus cable suspended monorails have a really small footprint.

Now if you combine those sytems with Personal Rapid Transit:
Electic Bikes,Jpods and freight in small containers.

So if we combine point to point monorail service with small container freight service we could get a lot of the traffic off the road.

How many times have you had to steer around 3 or four double parked beer trucks in the middle of the day? You wouldn't have to do that if the distributer could deliver a locked container to a central depot every few blocks without the truck. Since it would be a anonymous locked cube only openable by the store staff there would be little incentive to break into it. One guy in each neighborhood drives a pallet mover around to stores (or homes) and picks up empties to return to the net.

We could all sit in traffic or we could all get delivered to walking distance of our destinations. Destinations that could be free of many idling diesels delivering a few boxes of stuff. We could have a transportation internet.

Posted by: Pangolin on 1 May 07

My job is in a more expensive area than where I live, so living closer to the job would cost me far more than the extra cost of using a car.

Only because you are perpetuating a myth based upon an unrealistic notion of what is acceptable housing. I'm sure plenty of people would love to live on an acre in a 4,000 square foot rambler in the heart of Manhattan, but it's obviously not feasible. So that's why people in Manhattan (even the very very wealthy) accept multi-tenant housing as being good places to live and living without a car as normal.

Driving to work takes me 30-45 minutes. Taking mass transit to work would take around an hour and a half.

This is also a function of your specific housing location choice. You could certainly find a housing location which was quicker via transit than personal vehicle. You could also find one which required no vehicle.

For what the average American household spends on being car-dependent, they could add $120,000 to a 30 year fixed rate mortgage. Naturally, the value difference is even greater, because in the former case, the money is spent and gone, and in the latter, equity is built and taxes are saved. Where the money goes is also different - in the former case, to often unfriendly and environmentally-destructive owners of oil production resources, as well as distant, often foreign, vehicle manufacturers, where in the latter case, most of the funds stay locally - either with you or the people who provide support and maintenance to your home. The former is a destructive cycle and the latter is beneficial.

Living closer to work will also save you time, be better for your cardiovascular health, and is safer - since driving a vehicle is probably the riskiest controllable activity in the United States. All of those have tangible financial, emotional, and health value.

We use cars because cars are incredibly convenient and given a choice between other more sustainable options and driving, we'd rather drive.

All of which are results of policy and design choices which lead directly to that. It's not some immutable law.

Stressing public transportation is not the answer, instead we should concentrate on making the path of least resistance (using cars) as sustainable as possible through new cleaner car technologies.

It's not even remotely that simple, nor is it some sort of either/or proposition. It's a far more complex problem than that.

Posted by: gd on 2 May 07

I like your post Sarah.

It's amazing to me that people forget that cities and communities have been in existence for around 5000 years. In the past cities were designed with people in mind and over the last 80 years or so our cities have been redesigned with cars in mind. I live in LA were that fact slaps you in the face around the clock. Yet, I manage to live car-free in this city because it is simply easier to get around using a bicycle for most trips and combining the bike with public transit for longer destinations.

If I need the service of a car I use car sharing programs, which need greater application. Many businesses are actually providing shared-use cars, trucks, and vans to their employees for office related trips such as sales calls, service calls, etc. This motivates people to leave their car at home and use one provided at work. So the excuse that sales and service people need to migrate from place to place is not really valid is it. In addition, the USGBC (US Green Building Council) gives LEED credits for implementing car-sharing practices into commercial buildings. I wonder if this practice became mainstreamed if a carbon tax on passenger vehicles would even be necessary?

On a final note, May is National Bike Month so get out of your car and get on your bike and ride. Peace.

Posted by: Ron on 2 May 07

Interesting post, Sarah. The 1989 quake damaged several freeways in the region, creating a similar circumstance -- The Bay bridge closed, and BART ran 24 hours. San Francisco, after much political wrangling, decided not to rebuild three damaged sections of freeway, and in return got it's waterfront back by removing the Embarcadero, made space for a new baseball park by cutting back the stub of Interstate 280, and revived a whole neighborhood and created 9 acres of urban land by cutting back the Central Freeway.

Other cities had similar experiences; when a truck fell through New York's decaying Westside Highway in the 1970's, it was not rebuilt, and Manhattan has gradually converted its formerly derelict and isolated Hudson River waterfront into truly beautiful shoreline park.

Cities too often run on inertia, and the decision to tear out a destructive and unsustainable hunk of auto infrastructure can be nearly impossible politically. But as they wear out or are destroyed, livable city advocates and environmentalists should to be ready to suggest something different and better.

Posted by: Tom Radulovich on 4 May 07

I think that you may have been mis-informed about the Seattle Viaduct. There has been a conspiracy of silence about the inconvenient truth that the Viaduct can be Repaired. Advocates of the Tunnel and of the "Surface/Transit" goal have both furthered the convenient fiction that "the Viaduct must be Replaced!" because it furthers their own respective agendas. From a distance, the covenient fiction — that the the Viaduct cannot be Repaired in place while maintaining a substanial part of its capacity — wins out. But it is not true.

Posted by: David Sucher on 7 May 07



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