worldscape

Local Elections and the Paris Climate Agreement

As an urban planner and environmental advocate, two items in the news today have really gotten my attention: the Paris Climate Agreement and local/state elections all across the country. In my mind, the two are deeply interwoven. But how do local elections affect an international movement?

In case you haven’t been following the news around the Paris Agreement, as of this afternoon (Tuesday November 7, 2017 at 12pm), Syria has announced it will sign the Paris Agreement, leaving the United States as the only country that has not yet agreed to sign on. In fact, the United States’ presentation at the United Nations Global Warming Conference in Bonn, Germany this week promotes coal, natural gas and nuclear energy as an answer to climate change.

I would be in even more despair than I already am if it wasn’t for the United States Climate Alliance, which is a bi-partisan coalition of states committed to the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement. The Climate Alliance is sending multiple governors to Bonn to reassure world leaders that, while the federal government is changing direction in its climate policy, multiple states are working to ensure the US meets the goals laid out in the Paris Agreement. This is meaningful because if enough states join, that will make a significant impact on emissions reductions. To put things into perspective, one of these states, California, has a GDP that ranks in the top 10 of all countries. That’s why it’s so important that these states are helping to lead the charge against climate change.

Which now brings me to local/state elections. Far too many Americans only vote in presidential elections, thinking that local government doesn’t matter as much. This couldn’t be more wrong. Change often starts at the local and state level. On a micro-level, the decisions your city council, mayor, state representatives, and other elected officials make affect your life on a daily basis. Urban planners often talk about the importance of creating sustainable cities through alternative transportation, energy efficiency, storm water management, and other infrastructure and policies. These planning decisions happen at the local and state level and improve the environment that you live in every day. On a more macro-level, however, successful innovative local policies can often become state policies, which may one day even become national policies. When elected officials see public support for policies in their home states, they are more likely to support them at a national level.

That’s why it’s important that cities and states are helping to reduce emissions, even when federal actions are not. Your councilmember can approve the addition of a bike lane to your street to help reduce traffic emissions. Your mayor can mandate that buildings are built to be more energy efficient. And your governor can just maybe work with the rest of the world to ensure that the United States meets the emission-reduction targets laid out in the Paris Agreement.

All of this is to say, if you haven’t voted in your local election yet, most polls close between 6pm and 9pm. Get out there.

*To find your local polling place and ballot information, visit www.vote.org/polling-place-locator/.

Image from Teamster.org of a horse and buggy and a motorized jitney bus

A Horse of a Different Character

A Horse of a Different Character

I’m a big fan of history. In planning we have to draw on our history as a nation and from human civilization to reflect on where we come from to know where we are going. Recently, I went to a symposium of sorts about autonomous vehicles and heard from experts about how soon these vehicles will hit our streets and the expected changes that will come with them, depending on the reception. In an ideal world, these vehicles are like carshares that can be collectively owned and shared between people, or a fleet owned by rideshare giants like Uber, Lyft, Via, etc. Think personal rapid transit that gives door-to-door service using roads.

One of the most interesting conversations at the meeting is how these vehicles and the idea of a shared fleet will impact current land and right of way uses. Being the fan of history that I am, I look back to think forward. The last big revolution of vehicular movement for individual transportation was probably the transition from horse to the car. Unfortunately, but also fortunately, (I was excited to roll up my sleeves and do some research/ glad that someone else was thinking about this too) for me someone had already looked into the relics from our horse-reliant past. This mental floss article explains each of these in detail, but essentially these urban relics are:

  • Stables
  • Carriage Houses
  • Horse walks (horse staircases)
  • Troughs
  • Fountains
  • Auction Houses
  • Horse blocks (to give us short people a much-needed boost)
  • Hitching posts and tethering rings
  • Horsecar tracks

Then there are the indirect impacts that are needed to feed the horses and deal with their waste like barns or grain silos to house their feed. As these are living creatures, waste collection and ways of dealing with manure and urine became important as well. Each animal produced 22 pounds of manure a day on average, I mean just imagine the… puns!! And the sanitary conditions, that’s important too! Y’all (I) thought snow is an issue when clearing streets, but imagine the equine alternative. I digress, but there were whole initiatives to deal with this including inviting farmers to come and collect the manure for free or would collect and sell the manure on their own. Then there are the jobs related to horse care like blacksmiths, stable people, veterinarians, trainers, carriage drivers, etc. The horse flu epidemic (the Great Epizootic) in the 1870’s left many horses dead in the streets. Cities didn’t have the capacity to deal with the carcasses so they were just left to rot. It sure puts those special parking arrangements into perspective, doesn’t it?

Modern Parallels

Many of these items have direct parallels in our modern world. Stables = our parking garages, Carriage Houses = car ports/ home garages, horse walks = car elevators, troughs and fountains= gas stations, auction houses are pretty much the same but require way more impervious surface. Horse blocks have been built into our current vehicles. Hitching posts and tethering rings= on-street parking. Horsecar tracks are actually quite useful nowadays as many cities are reviving streetcar systems and make an easier transition from current status to autonomous vehicles for transit.

The waste problem also has parallels. Instead of physical manure, the effects have been much less tangible over the past decades. Our environment has still suffered, but at a different cost to air quality and climate change versus piles of excrement. Jobs related to driving- especially specialized drivers with commercial driver’s licenses such as bus drivers and operators, freight truck drivers, streetcar operators (especially for heritage lines) and associated car care employment may soon have to adapt to the new trends or be retrained entirely. Dealing with abandoned cars in the streets is an issue that we’ve learned to deal with through towing companies, but what will happen when an AV vehicle fails and breaks down in the street? Tow trucks will likely still exist, but what will they look like as the vehicle designs change?

The Future is Now…

How I see it, our future can be predicted this way as well. Our concept for garages will need to change. There may not be a use for personal garages in the future, so we’ll likely absorb them as part of our living spaces. This is happening now. Watch HGTV for a hot second and there they are converting a garage to a ‘man-cave’ or a “she-cave”. Gas stations will die out for charging stations as we go electric, and they should adapt to become entertainment centers or community gathering spaces that do more than just gas up your vehicle. On-street parking can be traded for more green space or space allocated to alternative modes of transportation, or both (pervious bike lanes) to accomplish environmental goals. Our car stables (parking garages) will also need some rethinking and I have some ideas… which I’ll share in a future post, but it serves to be our biggest opportunity. The spaces are unfit for housing, but have other uses that they could easily transition to in order for cities to meet their goals and accommodate growth.

With the average age of a personal car hitting over 10 years old, it may be a while until we see a wholesale overhaul of our surface transportation system. The road ahead is not going to be easy, it will involve tradeoffs and lessons learned, but if we take a cue from the past, we can avoid and make up for some of the mistakes we made with the horseless carriage.

 

Christine E. Mayeur, AICP is an urban planner with a unique set of skills and hobbies, interested in all things creative and challenging. Christine uses her history of working with communities through grassroots organizations along with her planning skills to help plan transportation systems and environmental solutions that meet the needs of all users.

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The Future of Transportation Part II

As an alumnus and a member of the Advisory Council for the Civil Engineering Department at Cornell University, I was asked to lead a workshop during the summer CATALYST Academy. The purpose of the summer program was to bring high school students from underrepresented backgrounds to Cornell to spark an interest in engineering and the university. My workshop entitled “Transportation: How you can be part of the Future” included a 30-minute presentation and a 60-minute group activity. Part I was the summary of the presentation portion of my workshop. 

 

Group Activity

I created a 60-minute group activity to give the students a high-level experience designing the transportation for the future. For the assignment, they had to solve a transportation problem for a specific type of community by developing at least two goals and using technology, while meeting the needs of at least two social equity communities. How hard could that be?

One aspect of the activity was to see the students work in teams. My workshop was on the first day of the program, so the students had just met each other. I divided them into six groups at random. The amazing part was watching them interact with each other and more importantly how they made sure everyone participated. Although I only asked for one person to present for the group, each group chose to present as a team.

The Ideas

The six groups and immediately started thinking and creating. Here’s what the groups created:

  • Group 1: Their community setting was space. Their goals were to establish connectivity between earth and mars, and create mining jobs. Their technology was autonomous spaceships. Their social equity groups were homeless and historically underserved communities by providing jobs.
  • Group 2: They selected a suburban setting, because more generations are living together and cities already have public transportation. Their two goals were to establish connectivity and the reduce air emissions. Their technology was autonomous vehicles that have Wi-Fi. Their social equity groups were seniors, persons with disabilities, and single parents.
  • Group 3: This group designed an autonomous bus with a mobile application to improve safety and reduce congestion in historically underserved communities and seniors. Their community setting was urban such as West Palm Beach Florida.
  • Group 4: They wanted to build a hyper (beyond just high) speed train between San Francisco and Los Angeles to move people and goods within 30 minutes. The train would be autonomous, have free Wi-Fi on board, and tickets would be electronic and affordable. Their social equity group was historically underserved communities and persons with disabilities. Without being prompted they also discussed the need to have housing policies so that people won’t be displaced.
  • Group 5: Similar to group 4, they focused on megaregional travel. Their goals were to maximize moving people and vehicles faster. They selected high speed rate that is autonomous, has free Wi-Fi, and uses applications to track travel. They would focus on single parents and historically underserved communities by keeping the new system affordable.
  • Group 6: They created a SkyHub, which is a mobile transportation system that connects people via the air. Their goals were to reclaim street space for people and reducing congestion by moving transportation vertically. To ensure equity they have at least once stop in every neighborhood.

Veronica O. Davis, PE is a transportation guru who uses her knowledge to spark progressive social change. As Co-owner and Principal of Nspiregreen, she is also responsible for the management of the major urban planning functions such as transportation planning, policy development, master planning, sustainability analysis, and long range planning. In July 2012, Veronica was recognized as a Champion of Change by the White House for her professional accomplishments and community advocacy, which includes co-founding Black Women Bike.





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