Active Transportation: One Foot or Pedal in front of the Other Gets You There

Cities worthy of the Popsicle Index take both the young and old into account

First, the big Big Apple controversy around the bike share program. Again, NYC is not Nirvana, not the greenest city in the world as Bill McKibben gushes, and just is backward as hell. Let global warming proceed, Manhattan.

The area of disconnect the bike share program has most egregiously exposed is the one between the city’s understanding of community outreach and the way that information is received and processed in any given neighborhood. Many residents complained on Wednesday night, as they have in Brooklyn Heights and downtown Manhattan, that the metal stalls and kiosks seemed to appear, suddenly and out of the ether.

The Transportation Department has countered that its consultation process has been exhaustive, that it led and participated in nearly 400 meetings with community boards, business-improvement districts and other neighborhood groups and that none of the station placements ought to have come as a surprise.

But even now, in an era of hyper-localization, of neighborhood blogs and Patch sites, many of us have little sense of what our community boards are doing, little time to pay attention, and the boards in turn often are short-staffed and cannot possibly disseminate information on every issue.

Then the WSJ weighs in1:

In a bizarre and doddering rant, which in part came across as commentary suited for The Onion, but mostly demonstrating the tragedy of what can happen if someone forgets to take his or her meds before appearing in a live interview, Rabinowitz launched a tirade against Citi Bike and, that has become a gift that keeps on giving.

In an opinion piece titled “Death By Bicycle,” Rabinowitz opened her soliloquy with her declaration the bike share program was at the hands of a “totalitarian government.” She continued with the mourning of how the blue bikes have “begrimed” the city’s neighborhoods, as if all the plastic surgery on the Upper East Side, chain restaurants in Times Square and trash on the city’s streets did not already blight the Big Apple. (Amusingly enough, when I watched the video yesterday, it opened with a Chevron advertisement.)

Rabinowitz then continues her apocalyptic vision of a city under chaos due to rogue bicyclists weaving in and out of streets and sidewalks as they flout the local traffic rules. She blames the ideologue Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the same radical who has unrepentantly defended New York’s financial services industry and also not only told the teachers unions to shove it, but compared them to the NRA.

Finally, Rabinowitz’s tantrum ends with her insistence that “The bike lobby is an all-powerful enterprise.” (If only we were so lucky). Perhaps in 50 years our children will hear tales of how Trek, Specialized and Giant conspired to rip out city streets, parking spaces and drive-through Starbucks in the quest to turn NYC and other American cities into an Amsterdam, London or Washington, DC (which until last week’s opening of Citi Bike had the nation’s largest bike sharing program).

Naturally, some commentators have taken Rabinowtiz’s bait: Think Progress, for example, listed rebuttals to her nonsense. Other journalists, such as The Atlantic’s James Fallows, simply note how the video shows how the Wall Street Journal has slid from a the globe’s leading business news publication to a News Corp tabloid.

Yes, the bike stations’ aesthetics could have been better; of course bicyclists need to follow the traffic rules; and Citi Bike will experience growing pains. In the end, the bicycling program will complement New York’s transportation infrastructure, and will add to the city’s overall quality of life, not ruin it.

And the truth about Rabinowitz’s manifesto is that it is one of the best video clips coming from a New Yorker since Harriet Christian’s tantrum against Barack Obama’s impending presidential nomination in 2008.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is the editor of GreenGoPost.com and frequently writes about business sustainability strategy. Leon also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable BrandsInhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).

Active Transportation: One Foot or Pedal in Front of the Other Gets You There

Walkable, Bikable, Transit-Ready Spokane

Here’s a very sage observation from a practitioner of Western Medicine:

“Walking is like medicine for my patients. If walking was a pill or surgical procedure, it would be on 60 Minutes.” – Dr. Bob Sallis

So, what gives, then, in America, with the battle of the bulge and the larger war against inflated and ballooning health care costs, that walking isn’t integral to everyone’s life, whether child, teen, youngster or AARP-aged adult?

Framing a story on educating and building a walkable city takes some dipping of the intellectual toes into many different disciplinary ponds.  I even ended up in Salem, Oregon, for a regional conference, OATS (Oregon Active Transportation Summit), getting an insider’s view on how to make the biking and walking “leap” for America’s 30,000 incorporated towns, cities and megalopolises.

We even had the quintessential gurus of city planning heralding in some signs of resuscitation:

  • Mark Gorton, New York, executive director of OpenPlans, gave the thumping PowerPoint: “Rethinking America’s Auto-Oriented Transportation and Land Use Planning”
  • Larry Frank, Vancouver, BC, president of Urban design 4 Health, was a one-man variety show with his long detailed talk: “Understanding How Transportation and Land Use Decisions Affect Our Health”

Luckily for Spokanites, we have a cadre of planning, policy and design wonks working on walkability: Bob Scarfo, WSU professor, PhD, and owner of Land and Life; Karl Otterstrom, Director of Planning for Spokane Transit Authority;  Kerry Brooks, WSU associate professor of Landscape Architecture;  Amber Joplin, PhD., WSU GIS & Simulation Lab; Eve Nelson, Senior Transportation Planner; Barb Chamberlain, WSU communications for 14 years, founder of Bike to Work Spokane in 2007, new executive director of Bicycle Alliance of Washington; Jon Snyder, publisher of Out There Magazine and Spokane Councilmember.

Land Use – A Good Walk-a-Day Keeps the Doctor at Bay

For ten years I worked with planners, faculty and others in and around Spokane on the very big and sometimes bland issues tied to neighborhood planning, land use and transportation, with bursts of innovation utilizing cutting edge theories hitched to new urbanism, smart growth, sustainability, complete streets and just plain old guerrilla thinking about how Spokane and the County might plan for true resiliency, aging and the end of cheap oil (AKA, fuel). I’ve worked with passionate folk fighting for the Spokane River, for wetlands, for Palouse soil, for urban density, for community and school gardens, and for neighborhoods (citizens) to have more say in what gets built, how, why, and where.

The reality is that planning a community for what we call livability and walkability still centers around the very personal and sometimes singular, selfish motivation: health and one’s banks account.

Dr. Bob Sallis,   Kaiser Permanente- California family practitioner,  is one of several million health experts and scientists who has witnessed the direct correlation to how much time his patients spend walking and their overall health: the more, the better.

Fortunately, the benefits of walking go beyond health, though those are impressive:  150 minutes a week of walking can reduce chances of diabetes, high blood pressure, cardio problems and Alzheimer’s. Here’s an analogy — A good tree in a front yard that shades, protects and gives species other than humans a canopy. A bunch of neighborhood trees also precipitate positive psychological impacts as well as reduce crime and increase home values.

Walking also does some amazing things, including getting us out to enjoy those trees and urban and suburban canopy species.

More walking people actually results in safer hometowns. Think of walking as a tutor —  research shows better student performance in school if kids get out and bike and walk. What about Spokane’s sense of neighborliness? Well, walking improves that, as well as increases economic activity at local businesses and improves social equity across all definitions and characteristics of what it is to be American.

Cut PE Class, Ride in a Car – A Model for Inactivity

What is not being hammered out at the national level around health and physical activity are some very embedded reasons why children and their parents —  and to the same extent most Americans —  don’t walk or bicycle on streets and sidewalks, says Robert Ping, a technical expert in Portland with Safe Routes to School.

These can include social stigmas attached to walking or bicycling. Americans love cars, and cars have become the symbol for success in America. Walking and bicycling, along with riding transit, especially buses, have become symbolic for poverty. Also, many people will not do what the majority will not do:  In other words, if our neighbors are driving, we tend to drive along with them; we are pack animals, after all.

In Spokane City Planning circles, the terminology of the past two decades is “active transportation” and “multi-modal transportation.” Our state’s elected officials, county supervisors, members of city council like Snyder, and planners like Otterstrom, Brooks, and Nelson understand the challenge of rethinking a city that has followed the trend over 70 years of more and bigger cars.

Our priorities have been put into one big basket of fragile eggs — wider roads, and more of them; expensive freeways, highways, byways, bridges; and all kinds of anti-walker (pedestrian) and anti-bicycling designs that make walking to the store a quarter of a mile from home a Herculean physical challenge or mandatory car trip.

All of this costs money in direct expenditures for all that infrastructure, but again, car-centric cities exact a price on our daily physical and emotional lives.

“Probably the biggest challenge is shifting from an instant gratification way of living to thinking and planning and valuing long-term thinking,” Scarfo says. “What’s so ironic is that what you are asking for, what we need to enable people to live more sustainable (and resilient) lives is what our grandparents had. They had walking communities, with village centers located along trolley lines that connected to rail and subway (I’m from the Boston area) lines. And yet so many people will fight the ideas under the guise of being bad without thinking of what was, and why it was.”

So, we’ve reached that stage where our children —  who have been trained and habituated to getting carpooled around everywhere, who see parents idle SUVs for many minutes close to the mall entrance waiting for an open parking space —  just don’t walk or bike to the store or school. As Safe Routes to School’s Ping says, these American youth are expending a daily energy output close to what they expend while sleeping.

“The national obesity epidemic is the most extreme consequence of this, which includes children, and which is now the most costly and deadly factor in Americans lives,” Ping laments. “For the first time in history, if we continue decreasing our energy output, drinking sugar-sweetened beverages and eating junk food at the current rate, this generation of children will live a shorter and sicker lifespan than their parents.”

People Own the Streets

Brooks and so many others in or around planning circles know that all the great ideas, plans and conferences, all the motivated graduate students and activist neighborhood groups in the world can’t match the Goliath — developers. They are in the game for the bucks, so their willingness to build new mixed-use pedestrian projects is almost null. “I think we need more convincing case studies that can demonstrate that such projects are not only desirable but perhaps even better for their bottom line than more traditionally auto-oriented projects,” Brooks says.

Forget about the agnotology around Americans just not “getting” climate change and the implications of dwindling cheap fuel. Let’s look at what even staid, conservative AARP has to say about the benefits of bicycling and walking in cities: We could realize an annual reduction of 70 billion miles of automobile traffic if we throw in a modest increase in active transportation into our daily collective lives.

More telling is how broken those suburbs and urban areas are — half of the trips taken in the U.S. can be completed in a 20-minute bike ride and a quarter of trips can be completed in a 20-minute walk. Recall Kaiser Permanente’s stance  – walking and biking make you live longer and with fewer ailments. The sad reality, however, is the majority —  78 percent —  of these short trips are made by automobile.

It’s a symptom of a highly inefficient transportation system in Spokane, in America, so say the planners, elected officials and wonks.

Popsicle Tests – Young and Old Alike Need Options

Looking at US Census Bureau stats for Spokane, we see Spokane’s population is made up of the old and young – 12.8 percent are 65 years old or older, and 22.4 percent are 18 or younger. The hard reality, though, is that those Baby Boomers, the single largest generation ever, are aging at a rapid rate. We are talking 10,000 a day turning 65. That’s 77 million people born between the years 1946 and 1964.

For both groups, the personal automobile is costly, difficult to keep up and pay for. Additionally, for men, they live on average seven years past their “driving able” years, and women live more than 12 years past their driving age.

For all of the people cited in this story, the challenges of getting old (by 2030 thirty percent of the US population will be 65 years old or older) and “aging in place” are the issues of their time.

We need active transportation programs for youth to fight the battle of the bulge and diabetes, and we need something similar for the aged:  “We’ve talked about Safe Routes to School–now we need Safe Routes for Seniors. This is massive issue looming on the horizon,” says Snyder.

I learned from a 2003 New Partners for Smart Growth conference an interesting heuristic for evaluating “the livability of a neighborhood” – The Popsicle Test:

  • Can a kid get to a store on her own, buy a popsicle, and get home again before it melts?

It comes from a Vancouver, BC planning official.

Brooks and Scarfo themselves are at the middle end of the Baby Boomer cohort, and so they relate well to the fact that many aging drivers will experience age-related limitations that may prevent them from driving.  Are we as a society up to the challenge of planning a multi-modal transportation system so all citizens can have mobility and are able to access the places they desire to be? So they can even walk to a store to buy and enjoy a Popsicle?

Brooks emphasizes that “when the elderly become non-drivers they are in a situation similar to others who can’t or won’t drive – children, people with disabilities, people who cannot afford a car and so on. “

 If You Study It, People Will Listen

For Amber Joplin, who just completed her doctorate at WSU looking at this aging issue, when  people get old and no longer have the option to drive a personal vehicle, things get bad:   “Seniors face isolation, a reduced quality of life and possible economic hardship.”

So, she prescribes a diet streets need to go on.

My vision is lots of wide sidewalks with lots of trees for shade and benches at bus stops. Streets need to ‘go on a diet’ and give back the planting strips. Streets can also diet to create more bike paths, of which we need two types:  few high speed commuter bike paths and some casual paths.

There are also visions of having “on-demand” bus systems, as well as express and semi-express routes. What Joplin is proposing ties into extensive research on the needs of aging people and the chipping away at the impediments to robust and well-planned active transportation.

That includes parking lots incorporating pedestrian paths from adjacent bus stops and street crossings, as opposed to now where pedestrians have to jump into drainage swales and jump over or around shrubbery.

While we can make biking and walking and public transportation easier and better, there are always the design and zoning principles around allowing for the less traditional and non-polluting (tailpipe  emissions-wise, that is): “Some neighborhood streets could give up parking on one side and make golf cart routes.”

“No more trains, planes, automobiles … bring on the peds, spokes and electric carts.” The new mantra for the Inland Northwest?

  1. My little addition to the argument, out of Spokane, WA, in Spokane Living Magazine Pages 42-46. []

Paul K. Haeder lived one-year in Seattle working for "the" SEIU (Service Employees International Union), the largest private sector union in the USA (in their pro-Obama PR materials), to organize adjuncts in Bezos-Boeing-Gates land, after having worked as a communications, language, composition, writing instructor of the freeway flyer variety in El Paso for the University of Texas, the El Paso Community College, language institutes, Park College, the US Army, La Tuna Federal Correctional Institute, Packard Electric in Juarez, New Mexico State University, and several cities in Mexico. In Washington State, he taught at Gonzaga University, Spokane Community College, Spokane Falls Community College. He's job hunting -- at that golden age of 56 (and counting down) ... just what the progressive-left-of-center non-profits in the Vancouver-Portland “area” want (NOT). He can be reached at: paul@dissidentvoice.org. Read other articles by Paul, or visit Paul's website.

One comment on this article so far ...

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  1. Paul Haeder said on June 7th, 2013 at 10:39am #

    Paul:

    I just read your article on “Active Transportation” and I like it very much. Was wise how you made binding-tie to health improvement.

    In 2003, as my wife Carol became so ill and could not work, money became increasingly tight, and I resorted to riding a bicycle to work, > 1-mile from our home. As one could expect, I got many horn-beeps from motorists I knew, and some really admired my new mode of transportation. At present, I had to make a motorcycle acquisition, due to my 24/7 responsibility as a emergency response-incident supervisor. Thus, at times, pedaling to work does NOT cut-it, but my bicycle is definitely NOT retired, and due to economic winds, I do not believe I ever will, I’d prefer staying old, pedaling, healthy and smiling. Not much for sitting on back-porch for hours, never golf.

    Regret prolixity, but I’ll end with today’s headline from the Scranton Times Tribune newspaper. Governor Tom Corbett (R., Natural Gas) and Pa Senate voted to increase (“inject”) spending on road & bridge re-construction up to $1.8 billion over 5-years. Meanwhile, Pa school districts face severe financial decline, and Governor Corbett proclaimed that, “fixing the State’s 4,000 structurally deficient bridges and 10,000 miles of roads in need of repair is a SELLING POINT in locating businesses to the area.” FYI, the roads I bicycle to & fro Taylor & Old Forge Borough actually look like they endured US liberation/intervention.

    Best regards, and thank you for putting some steam into my lungs, comment below.

    C. Orloski