Accidental Sustainability and Why We Can't Sustain It

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by Worldchanging managing editor, Sarah Rich

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?


I think that you 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 agendas.

Posted by: David Sucher on May 2, 2007 6:29 AM

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