Green Tuesday: the grass is greener

This week’s Green Tuesday post is really a simple reflection on urban design…

When I first started cycling for recreation, I felt my urban utopia would be a place with miles of smooth-as-glass roadway for my cycling pleasure – the ultimate and never-ending century ride if you will. In Phoenix, I certainly have miles of roadway, but it is cracked, overcrowded, and leads to nowhere except the next Starbuck’s. Having a comfortable surface to ride a bike on is nice, but too often I feel I get spoiled when I have smooth and safe roadways – that is certainly not the overall reality of American urban infrastructure.

The cycling community is faced with a paradox – we want safe thoroughfares, but so long as we have to share them with cars, safety will be minimal. However, the cycling community does not exert enough influence (read: $$$) to have cycling/pedestrian-specific infrastructure built into our cities. It seems any time you hear a city touting some new cycling infrastructure, it is a few miles of narrow pathway through a park or affluent area of town – nothing that is ultimately useful for utilitarian purposes. Sure it stands to offer moments of happiness and recreation to the American family, but that happiness is gone as soon as one gets back into their automobile and sits through hellish traffic.

American cities are not designed to support infrastructure apart from automobiles. We spread our cities out farther and farther because our stores and homes need more and more room. Phoenix is currently considering a proposal to develop state park lands in order to build ANOTHER freeway to help alleviate traffic problems. That makes me sick.

We keep trying to put layer after layer of band-aids/duct tape over our gaping wounds of urban infrastructure, when we could solve the problem by enduring a brief moment of pain and ripping all the old junk off and stitching the wound! We need to revive our urban environments that already exist and push for more centralized and sustainable communities. And that is why I love Richard Register and the Ecocity Builders.

We are a non-profit organization dedicated to reshaping cities, towns and villages for long term health of human and natural systems. Our goals include returning healthy biodiversity to the heart of our cities, agriculture to gardens and the streets, and convenience and pleasure to walking, bicycling and transit. We visualize a future in which waterways in neighborhood environments and prosperous downtown centers are opened for curious children, fish, frogs and dragonflies. We work to build thriving neighborhood centers while reversing sprawl development, to build whole cities based on human needs and “access by proximity� rather than cities built in the current pattern of automobile driven excess, wasteful consumption and the destruction of the biosphere. [text and photos from ecocitybuilders.org]

And there are other people that think the time is right to rip off the band-aid. From Alex Steffen’s essay “My other car is a bright green city:”

Generally, we think of cars as things which are quickly replaced in our society, and buildings as things which rarely change. But that will not be the case over the next few decades. Because of population growth, the on-going development churn in cities (buildings remodeled or replaced, etc.), infrastructure projects and changing tastes, we’ll be rebuilding half our built environment between now and 2030. Done right, that new construction could enable a complete overhaul of the American city.

While I don’t know the exact method of accomplishing a task like this, I trust that the more people are aware of the possibilities, the better off we are.

Besides, now that I think about it, I would much rather ride my bike to work on a decently maintained dirt (or even grass) pathway through a naturally landscaped pathway, enjoying all the fruits of nature, instead of sharing 3 lanes of traffic with speeding SUVs whose drivers are sipping a grande double mocha frappacino latte while talking on their cell phone and looking for a Target.

Safe riding to everyone – it can be a nasty place out there. But does it have to be?…

[Author’s note: one of my favorite blogs covered the very same essay this morning and has a very interesting list of thoughts/reactions – check it out on the No Impact Man blog]


10 Comments

  1. russ roca February 13, 2008 12:29 am 

    Nice post Jeff….I think one obstacle to large changes is that many people can’t imagine beyond the current status quo….

    The car is so deeply ingrained into the American psyche that our instinctual response to solving traffic is to add more lanes (which is really just like sticking your finger in a dam…it may hold for a while but only covers up the symptoms of a much greater problem).

    Traffic lanes can’t be added indefinitely.

    Something else has to change.

    I use to commute from Long Beach to West LA by car and on some days, I would be spending anywhere between 3-4 hours in a car!!! At the time, I didn’t think there was anything I could do so I just accepted it.

    Looking back at it, I realize how completely absurd it was, how much time I lost and how much gas I used a week.

    I did manage to break the cycle but it took major changes; a new job, my truck to break down and my willingness to step outside my zone of familiarity.

    These are difficult steps, nowadays, because we want everything easy (cars that park themselves, carrots pre-cut and individually packaged, a self-cleaning shower, etc.,).

    This is the mentality that we’re up against. It’s not necessarily some willful evil, but just plain laziness.

    People too lazy to walk, or to bike, or to think outside the box. City council members too lazy to look for long-term solutions that maybe difficult but could provide real lasting improvements. Consumers too lazy to think for themselves so they let advertisers think for them. Developers too lazy to create something innovative and responsible than the same cheap crackerjack buildings. City traffic engineers too stuck in their ways to imagine an infrastructure where the car isn’t king….

  2. Ol February 13, 2008 9:30 am 

    Crappy roads are a problem everywhere then I guess. Luckily for us in the UK the mayor of London has recently announced a $1 billion overhaul of the cycling infrastructure of London. Including a similar bike hire system as seen in Paris and, most excitingly, 12 ‘radial cycling corridors’. Behind the weird language theres the promise of highways for bikes that cut through swarthes of some of the busiest routes (and most expensve real estate) of one of the busiest cities in the world. Cool no?
    If (if!), it works then there could be real ramifications for other cities…

  3. Quinn February 13, 2008 9:34 am 

    Jeff,

    I think this Green Tuesday is a Good idea, just 1 thing- It might just be me but, I go cross-eyeed trying to understand the verbage, As a bike commuter,…… give this to a motorist and they Might get though the second paragraph.

  4. Smudgemo February 13, 2008 11:14 am 

    If you pave it, they will drive.

  5. Jeff the Veloteer February 13, 2008 12:48 pm 

    Thanks for the feedback Quinn. I understand that part of the fine art of communication involves actually being able to communicate with your audience, so I’ll have to be more careful with my “presentation.” Afterall, it does no good to preach to the choir – those who understand the lingo – at the expense of those who stand the most to learn.

    I really think I have done the very same thing in this comment. Dang!

    I keep laughing at the “if you pave it they will drive.” Specifically, I think back to college and how on football weekends (at an SEC school no-less), if there was concrete, there was a car parked on it.

  6. Quinn February 13, 2008 1:29 pm 

    Jeff – i will take some of the blame too, i have never been much of an environmentalist, i got into cycling through my disability, so i never learned the vocabulary of environmentalists.

  7. Jeff the Veloteer February 13, 2008 2:36 pm 

    Quinn, there is no need to put blame on anyone brother.

    And honestly, I think if there is a separate vocabulary that goes with caring for creation, then it is doomed to fail. So you, or anyone else, should not be required to learn a new vocabulary.

  8. Jett February 14, 2008 11:46 am 

    I like the points about preaching to the choir because I often feel my blog posts are just that. Having said that, I find my cycling-positive influence is getting the most traction with fellow riders.

    In the US, most cyclists are rec cyclists and many of those drive to where they ride. To counter this, I lead rec rides leaving from our neighborhood and also lead a couple of commuter rides. During our rec rides, I recruit commuters and utility cyclists. It’s all about getting more cyclists on the road, right?

    Some people respond to the need for more miles during the week. Some respond to finding ways to spend more time with family or friends. Personal relationships is what connects us together and allows us to share our passion.

    And then there’s the bicycle advocacy organizations. Join your local advocacy group and get involved. They could probably use your help with a project and through you membership would certainly use their stronger voice to help bring about the infrastructure changes we seek. Even here though, it’s all about getting more cyclists out on the road.

  9. Jami April 25, 2008 7:49 am 

    I am going to link to this from my blog if that’s ok. I grew up in the Seattle area, so environmentalism has been in my vocabulary for quite a while, but since moving to Omaha, it is very easy to forget where I came from. Omaha is so spread out, like most midwestern cities, and it is very car centric. I am definitely the wierd person in all circles of friends because I am in the process of becoming car-free. Everyday the weather is bad, everyone I know asks if I rode my bike. They seem dumbfounded and in awe of the fact that I am willing to sacrifice comfort for 20 minutes in order to ride instead of drive. I am hoping to get involved in bike advocacy in Omaha soon. Keep up the good ride!

  10. Ack! I’m Turning Green! « An Adventurous Life April 25, 2008 9:31 am 

    […] I think this means I might need to pick up a trailer for my bike so I can schlep gardening stuff home from the local Lowes/Hoem Depot/Menards. Good thing I am selling my car and am committed to becoming a year-round cyclist. This blog entry was the inspriation for my post today. Green Tuesday […]

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