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Archive for the ‘Automobiles’ Category

This summer from May to September, the Northern Alaska Environmental Center sponsors “Don’t Be Fuelish”, a competition to encourage alternatives single-occupant car-commuting to work. I think the competition will have a good effect overall — but, in a way, the rules actually reward driving.

According to the Northern Center’s calendar of events,

It’s a friendly competition, open to all local organizations, to encourage employees to reduce their fossil fuel usage. People can bike, walk, bus, or carpool to and from work to save miles traveled in a single occupant vehicle. These miles are tallied each month, with a winner of the most miles saved announced at the end of the competition. There will be individual recognition as well – most miles biked, most miles walked, etc…

Perhaps I misunderstand the competition — and please correct me if so — but it appears that what it rewards is distance from work. That is, those participants who live farthest from work can contribute “saved” mileage more than those who live close enough to walk.

I love bicycling, and, when it’s not too cold, biking is my preferred way of getting to work and any other destinations. But if the goal of Don’t Be Fuelish is to encourage less, and less-wasteful, use of gasoline, wouldn’t the sponsors (not to mention the atmosphere) be happier if people simply lived close enough to work that they could just walk? Yet those people cannot contribute to the competition in their places of work.

Now, I’m not suggesting that anybody is making his or her housing choices based on the chance to rack up “saved” miles for Don’t Be Fuelish. “Wait! I was going to live in Slaterville and walk to my job at Ace Hardware, but now I think I’ll relocate down the George Parks Highway and bike in from Nenana!” No, no, of course not.

It’s just ironic that those in a position to save the most miles of vehicle travel from May to September are also those who will also will drive the most miles and consume the most gasoline in the other months, since most people aren’t bold enough to walk or bike to work all winter long. It would be nice if the competition could also reward those who live on a smaller, more walkable scale.

Of course, the broader goals of Don’t Be Fuelish aren’t just to save vehicle-miles. As I see them, they are (1) to raise consciousness about the amount of gasoline we waste through single-occupancy car use, and (2) to help people create habits (like walking, bicycling, carpooling, and busing) that they can take into the winter months, even if not as vigorously as in the summer. These are laudable goals, and I think that Don’t Be Fuelish is an excellent tool for meeting them.

The bicycling promotion aside — and I’m all for it! — what could we do to make it more possible and more attractive for Fairbanksans to live, work, and shop with no need of automobiles whatsoever?

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Model of compact, nesting carA family member just sent me an article titled “MIT tackles urban gridlock with foldable car idea“. Apparently, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have designed a compact two-seater (about the size of a golf cart) capable of finding other cars like itself to stack up with, folding in half, and parking itself. This, they suggest, would relieve automotive congestion and allow more space in cities for parks and walkways.

I suspect that this is nonsense.

It is known among traffic researchers that the addition of new roads, and of lanes to existing roads, only increases traffic congestion. This seems like a paradox to most people. Any relief that a widened road provides is only temporary: it lasts until people figure out that there is a less-trafficked, more-convenient road to drive.

At any moment, there is a “traffic equilibrium” struck between people’s desire to drive to their locations on one hand, and their willingness to put up with the inconvenience of driving (be it speed, distance, or crowding) on the other. When driving conditions are made easier — that is, faster because of decreased crowding — it allows the fulfillment of people’s “latent demand” for driving. Their behavior changes to meet this new capacity: they drive to more destinations and choose to live farther away from those destinations. In time, the new road capacity is filled. As the authors of Suburban Nation write,

The most irksome aspect of this situation is that these road-builders are never proved wrong; in fact, they are always proved right: “You see,” they say, “I told you that traffic was coming.”

While they haven’t widened the roads, these MIT scientists have done two things to increase traffic capacity: they’ve made the cars smaller (apparently, roughly the size of a golf cart), which will allow more of them on the road at once, and they’ve made it easier to find parking. If this folding, nesting, compact car catches on, I predict that the results will be similar to those of increasing our road-space: more people will find it convenient to drive, so people will live still farther away from town and make more trips by car.

As someone who advocates the re-establishment of downtown as Fairbanks’s center of commerce and culture, I am of two minds about the possibility of more traffic heading here. Naturally, I want more people coming downtown for their shopping and socializing. But I also think that making it easier for Fairbanksans to drive will only disperse us farther, and that is bad for neighborhoods, public spaces, and civic life.

I appreciate that the nice folks at MIT want to reduce urban traffic congestion and to create a less eco-hazardous car. But I wish they’d focus their efforts on technologies that can bring people closer together and improve the civic life of cities. I suspect that the tools for that are not high-tech, but have been with us for centuries.

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The cold snap is behind us for now, thank heavens, though surely we’ll get more in winters to come. Now seems like a fair time to look at the relationship between people’s civil right of peaceable assembly (yes, the one guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution) and Interior Alaska’s weather — at least, it’s being painted as the weather.

According to a recent article in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner (“Fairbanks air quality deemed unhealthy,” published February 8),

Air quality in the Fairbanks area has been classified as unhealthy today due to the recent cold snap, with the amount of small particles more than double what the federal government allows, according to the Fairbanks North Star Borough.

The most vulnerable people in the community—children, the elderly and people with heart or lung problems—should limit their activity and stay home, Miller said.

There was no mention in the article of where this unhealthy air comes from. There was some mention in the next day’s paper (“Cold causes air quality to dive and respiratory viruses to spike”), where the reporter wrote that, because of the thermal inversion, “people are breathing the exhaust from cars, power plants and wood stoves in greater quantity.”

What alarms me about this is not air pollution per se. Like most people, I think that air pollution is bad. How could it not be? The alarming thing to me is whom this affects first: “children, the elderly, and people with heart or lung problems.”

As a parent of small children — children whom I would like to have learn about their neighborhood and the community around them, children who need friends and play and human society — I get concerned when largely preventable circumstances cut my kids off from the rest of the world. And as the son of two people who will someday be old and infirm — people who need culture and society no less than my children — I get concerned when public health officials recommend isolating the elderly and keeping them out of the public sphere, due to environmental conditions that could have been prevented.

The News-Miner articles make scant mention of these conditions. If we’re to trust these articles, the unhealthy air was caused by the cold — and cold can’t be prevented, can it?

Of course, it wasn’t the cold that caused the presence of pollutants; only human activity produces “the exhaust from cars, power plants and wood stoves” mentioned in the February 9 article. The News-Miner kept the emphases of its stories far away from the human causes of air pollution, which is itself a cause for concern.

At this point, people might ask, “What would you have us do? Never go anywhere? Freeze in our homes?”

Well, no.

But notice that greater Fairbanks is laid out in a sprawling, low-density fashion: our residences, usually single-family houses, are put on large lots (often zoned to a minimum size); land is cheaper and less taxed when distant from the city center; and with few exceptions residential areas are kept far from commercial, office, light industrial, and civic areas. The net effect of this is that people can walk hardly anywhere they need to go, that they must drive — far and frequently.

Also, according to 2006 Census Bureau data, only a third of housing structures in the Borough consisted of two or more units. (Compare this with 2000 data from Manhattan county, where 99 percent of housing structures had two or more units, with more than 75 percent in the 20-units-or-more category.) This is relevant because when you share walls with others, you lose less heat to the outside. In clusters of apartments, condominiums, or row houses, heat is exchanged through the floors, ceilings, and walls — and thus is better conserved, so those homes require less heating.

Don’t get me wrong. I love building fires and sitting by wood stoves, and I am charmed by rustic living. Growing up in Anchorage, I loved the occasional drive to a friend’s cabin for a peaceful, low-tech weekend of cooking, hiking, and saunas. But the scale on which we do this in the Interior (a metropolitan area of some 90,000 people) and the frequency with which we drive (i.e., daily) to our private houses, whether in the city or in the woods, turn a quaint, idiosyncratic lifestyle choice into a near-obscenity.

The way we have planned the Borough — low-density housing, one-family homes, single-use zoning, large lots, cheap land, and the need to drive to get anywhere worth going — we have sown the seeds for our own citizens’ disenfranchisement. That makes a sooty, black smudge on Alaska’s Golden Heart.

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An acquaintance of mine works in an office building downtown. She tells me that she’s thinking of quitting her job because:

  1. She lives on the west side of Fairbanks, and driving to and from downtown is an unpleasant commute; and
  2. The air around her building stinks. She described it as smoky and diesel-ish, and that makes her uncomfortable.

And who wouldn’t be uncomfortable, breathing air full of car exhaust?

I like walking, whether on an idle stroll or on a pointed errand, and I suspect that most people do, when it’s pleasant. It saddens me that downtown Fairbanks, a place that ought to be full with the hustle and bustle of human activity, is so inhospitable that people not only don’t want to travel there on pleasure, but are even reluctant to work there in air-filtered offices.

Downtown isn’t just my neighborhood. It should be everyone’s neighborhood — that is, our city commons, the place where all of Fairbanks feels welcome and safe. Everybody with any business in the Fairbanks area has a right to be there. But what a shallow right it is, when the air quality puts people in fear for their health.

I’ll go out on a limb and guess that the poor air quality near my acquaintance’s place of work is due mostly to automobile exhaust. (If anybody has another suggestion, please speak up.) If that’s so, the exhaust is due to high numbers of automobiles — probably single-occupancy — traveling or idling in our streets and parking lots.

Can anybody see a better way? something that might help downtown be a pleasant, safe, welcoming environment?

Here is my very short list of suggestions. (The first will work only if coupled with the second.)

  1. Get private automobiles out of downtown. Limit motorized traffic to emergency vehicles, utility vehicles, possibly some commercial service vehicles, and public transportation.
  2. Provide copious public transportation all around the Borough to bring people into downtown.

Given the fact that most of Fairbanks would be driving downtown from somewhere, the transit stops would have to provide a modicum of parking. Transit would have to be frequent — say, never more than a five-minute wait at stops — so that people would not feel it was too much of a time burden to come downtown to begin with.

The car — a ton or more of smoke-belching steel — is a natural enemy to the pedestrian. It never makes the pedestrian’s life any safer, only scarier, and it causes the pedestrian’s retreat from the public sphere that is our common right. Take the cars from downtown, and watch it become a place worth being.

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