Boyonabike!

Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the tag “sustainable transportation”

Bikes and Sustainability

Turns out, the UN likes bikes.  Well, not explicitly, but pretty darn close.

The most recent report from the UN’s Working Group on Sustainable Development (WGSD) affirms 17 ambitious and interrelated goals for sustainable development it hopes will be attained by 2030 (that’s just 16 years away).  The WGSD urges governments to address these goals together, what they call “holistic and integrated approaches that will guide humanity to live in harmony with nature and will lead to efforts to restore the health and integrity of the earth’s ecosystem.”  The report lists a wide variety of goals for sustainable and equitable development that are laudable and avoid isolating environmental and social issues in separate silos:

1. End poverty everywhere

2. End hunger, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture

3. Attain healthy lives for all

4. Provide quality education and life-long learning opportunities for all

5. Attain gender equality, empower women and girls everywhere

6. Ensure availability and sustainable use of water and sanitation for all

7. Ensure sustainable energy for all

8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all

9. Promote sustainable infrastructure and industrialization and foster innovation

10. Reduce inequality within and between countries

11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe and sustainable

12. Promote sustainable consumption and production patterns

13. Tackle climate change and its impacts

14. Conserve and promote sustainable use of oceans, seas and marine resources

15. Protect and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, halt desertification, land degradation and biodiversity loss

16. Achieve peaceful and inclusive societies, access to justice for all, and effective and capable institutions

17. Strengthen the means of implementation and the global partnership for sustainable development

Category 11, “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, and sustainable,” is particularly relevant to bicycle transportation, calling on societies to prioritize “access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport for all, and expand public transport.”

Take a look at each of these categories.  Which form of transportation is safe?  Bicycles, or the one that kills approximately 35,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands more around the world every year?  How about goal no. 3 “attain healthy lives for all”?  What’s more likely to achieve that, sitting in traffic for hours a day or riding a bicycle to get to work and school?  Affordable and accessible?  Bikes win hands down.  Sustainable?  As we’ve discussed before, there’s no such thing as a “green” car, notwithstanding the auto industry’s attempts to paint itself green to make first world consumers feel better.  And goal no. 13 “tackle climate change and its impacts.”  Think cars for the world’s 7.5 billion people are going to bring us closer to addressing climate change?

The group calls on societies to “reduce urban sprawl” and “ensure universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible public spaces, particularly for women and children and people with disabilities.”  Designing cities primarily around automobile access runs contrary to this goal.  Cars are synonymous with sprawl, even if they’re electric, and they are the major hogs of space in cities, destroying safe public space in the name of parking lots, freeways, highways, and other urban “dead zones” suitable for nothing but the car.  Cars create danger for pedestrians, especially the young, old, and persons with disabilities.  In fact, if you wanted to create an extremely inequitable and unsustainable form of transportation, you’d invent the automobile and design your cities around it.

I realize these sustainable development goals are a long way from being met, but when you think about the larger issues human society faces, the UN has the right idea, and though it doesn’t explicitly endorse bikes, the handwriting is on the wall:  we can keep driving, or we can get on the simple bicycle and live sustainably.

Homage to JHK

tol-life

With a couple of days left on my spring break, I pulled out a copy of James Howard Kunstler’s Home from Nowhere, his 1996 call for a reassessment of suburban sprawl and its attendant social and ecological problems.  He is a particularly astute observer of the contradictions and blind spots in our thinking about the automobile, and doesn’t mind telling us we’ve fucked up.  Big time.

His arguments aren’t necessarily new, and are part of a growing body of literature critical of the car-centered suburban mode of social organization, but nobody lays it on the line quite like JHK.  He’s a cross between Lewis Mumford and Hunter S. Thompson.  He’s acerbic, scathing, unflinching, and bracing.  He’s a bit of a cynic and a curmudgeon, but he cuts through the bullshit and lays a withering scowl upon what he calls our “geography of nowhere”—suburban sprawl.  At the center of this heart of darkness is the automobile, the totem of a society gone profoundly antisocial and, at times, quite mad.  One of my favorite scenes is from his dystopian post-automobile age novel, The Long Emergency, set in the not-too-distant future when the combination of petroleum shortages, nuclear war, and climate change have doomed the unsustainable “American way of life.”  In a brutal dissection of the pathological depth of our psychological dependence on the car, one of his characters sits in his beloved automobile and puts a bullet in his own head rather than continue to live in a world without cars.  JHK is the tonic answer to the sickly-sweet carbonated sugar water of American car culture.

Of our penchant for equating cars with “freedom,” Kunstler writes in Home from Nowhere, “[t]his is the freedom of a fourteen-year-old child,” a freedom to do whatever we want, consume whatever we want, heedless of the consequences.  When the consequences (highway deaths, polluted air, climate change) become too obvious to ignore, the tendency is to put our faith in techno-solutions, despite the fact that they ignore the root of the problem and are evidence of the peculiar blindness of wishful thinking.  He dissects the fallacy that the electric car will save us from the destructive effects of the automobile, likening it to “the old joke about the guy who decides to make his blanket longer by cutting off twelve inches from the top and sewing it onto the bottom.”  He lays out the economics of the automobile as clearly as anyone and one realizes how deeply we’re in hock to these tin cans on wheels.  The more money we pour into the car system, the more congested our roads become, the more money we throw at it, the more dependent we become on it, the more congested it becomes, and so on.

In a society living in a deep state of denial about automobiles, it should come as no surprise that politicians tend to pander to this addiction.  Rather than asking the average voter to confront the uncomfortable truth that the age of the automobile is coming to an end—must come to an end for its economic and ecological unsustainability—they promise more and wider freeways, the cost be damned, as a panacea for the problems caused by, well, more and wider freeways.  It’s not as if transportation engineers don’t know the consequences of more, wider freeways.  Indeed, they have a term for the inevitable congestion that will follow: induced demand.  Happens every time.  As JHK points out, “we have the knowledge to do the right thing; we lack only the will to do the right thing.”

Despite our auto-sociopathy, there is another way.

I believe that our utter dependence on the automobile must come to an end.  Society can no longer afford the cultural phenomenon of mandatory mass car ownership.  Whatever cars might run on in the future, we will have to use fewer of them and less often.  We are going to need places that are worth dwelling in, from which we won’t feel compelled to escape every moment we are not working. … an intelligently designed town can easily provide access to the needs and wishes of people in everyday life by public transit, walking, and biking.  The models for these places already exist.  They’re called London, Paris, Amsterdam, Prague, Munich, Oxford, Perugia, and Zurich.

More people are beginning to see this, but there are powerful cultural and economic interests working against such a transformation.  The odds are long, but the stakes are high, and will only get higher the longer we wait.

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