Sunday, May 04, 2008

Reducing Emissions on the Local Level

Today's Post highlights ways in which states and cities are trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Officials in King County and other places are rethinking the way their communities grow and operate, all with an eye toward reducing their overall carbon footprint. After decades of policies that encouraged people to move out to the suburbs in pursuit of larger homes and bigger back yards, some policymakers are now pushing aggressively to increase urban density and discourage the use of private cars.

In Massachusetts, the state demands that developers calculate and disclose the climate impact of their projects. In California, Attorney General Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. has sued communities and power companies for failing to offset the greenhouse gases generated by their expansion plans. And Washington, D.C., officials are installing a new trolley line and bike rental kiosks in an effort to cut back on car trips within the city.

Even though national politicians are beginning to eye a federal carbon cap more seriously, the flurry of activity in state and local jurisdictions highlights a little-noticed reality: Most of the measures to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions will be enacted outside the nation's capital.

"The vehicle for delivery, in terms of achieving greenhouse-gas reductions, is often going to be the states," said Ian A. Bowles, Massachusetts secretary of energy and environmental affairs. "It's going to happen through things like building codes, utilities and zoning."
To some extent that is how it should be. States and cities have more flexibility to adapt to local conditions that might make some changes harder and others easier compared to other regions. We still need federal action, however, because not all regions are equally interested in reducing emissions. The Southeast has particularly lagged behind; six southeastern states would be the world's seventh-largest source of greenhouse gases if they were a separate country.
"This region is a major part of the problem," said Oliver A. "Trip" Pollard, land and community program leader at the Southern Environmental Law Center. "So far, we are not a major part of the policy solution."

As the Southeast continues to grow -- North Carolina, with a population of 8 million, is projected to add another 4 million residents in the next 20 to 25 years -- people are spreading out rather than concentrating in cities, which translates into longer commutes....

Most other Southeastern states are accelerating their carbon emissions by expanding roads and curtailing public transit projects. Officials are planning to expand a highway in northwest Atlanta to 23 lanes, even as they missed a deadline to install new commuter rail lines.
I grew up in a town that was developed prior to World War I, so it was designed to be convenient for the transportation available at the time: feet and streetcars. All houses are within easy walking distance of the main avenue, which has public transportation (buses) and retail, and almost all properties have sidewalks so that walking is safe. Neighboring towns developed later, after World War II, and therefore show signs of car-oriented development: cul-de-sacs instead of a grid, with no sidewalks, often far from any type of retail or transportation. Suburban and exurban development still favors the latter pattern. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions through greater use of mass transit will require not just providing the transit, but also orienting land use patterns to ones that favor energy savings. Denser, more walkable development will reduce car use (and associated emissions) a lot more than simply adding a few extra bus routes.

The Post article also mentions that some cities are trying to account for bicycle commuting as a formal part of public policy. Washington, D.C., in particular, has been experimenting with a bicycle-sharing program analogous to similar programs in Europe. As with public transportation, widespread adaptation of bicycles requires that transportation and land use planning accommodate their use. As with mass transit, denser developments with shorter commutes will favor bicycle over car use. More importantly infrastructure and proper driver education needs to be in place for bicycle commuting to be safe. Safety can be a problem even in places that encourage bicycling.
On streets clogged by pollution-emitting cars, buses and trucks, New York City’s quest to establish reasonably safe cycling paths by adding to its roughly 300 miles of bicycle lanes has been welcomed by cyclists. But the lanes are often battlegrounds between cyclists and drivers who seem undeterred by the clearly demarcated paths.

Although city regulations forbid cars from blocking bike lanes — a violation that carries a $115 fine — those rules are routinely ignored by drivers who use the lanes as parking spots, loading zones and places to pick up passengers. Such maneuvers have enraged cyclists who say they are unlawful, rude and dangerous.
Bicycle lanes are a start, but a lot more needs to happen to make bicycle a safer means of transportation.