Thursday, August 17, 2006

Green and Mean

I live in New York City and have traveled to Europe and noticed that almost everywhere in Europe, buildings, transportation, almost everything is designed to save energy, water and lessen environmental impacts. In comparison, during the recent heat wave in New York, many retailers were leaving their doors open, spilling air-conditioned air onto the sidewalks. Most often this is mandated by the corporate policy of the retailers' parent companies.
I travel about the city by bicycle about half the time and mass transit the other half. Bicycle transportation is more noticeable in New York than anywhere else in North America, yet is dwarfed by the ubiquity of it in most European cities. In New York City, about 115,000 people a day commute to work by bicycle. I may be biased, but I firmly believe that if more people in the city and suburbs used bicycles to get around at least some of the time it would put a big dent in the nation's oil appetite - and a dent in many bulging stomachs as well.
There was an article in 'The New Yorker' two years ago (it's no longer available online) called 'Green New York'. The article confirmed something I've always suspected: dense urban areas (like NYC) are much more energy efficient than less dense suburban areas. Some of this is due to apartment buildings being more energy efficient, but the primary reason is the small percentage of residents who commute to work by car and/or alone in their car. Only 46% of New Yorkers even own a car (in Manhattan it's only 25%) and 2 out of every 3 people who commute to work by rail in the United States are in the New York area.
We all know that the automobile has changed the landscape of North America for the last 80 years. Suburban sprawl is now the norm and new homes being built are 2 to 3 times larger than the typical home built 20 years ago. This is without any major improvements in energy efficiency, since insulation use became commonplace 30 to 40 years ago.
The simple fact of the matter is that the way most non-urban communities are designed, it necessitates driving almost every day of the week: to work, to shop, to visit friends, to see a movie, to eat out, etc. While public transportation is available in many suburbs, a very small percentage of people have used it even once and even less use it regularly.
This goes beyond city vs. Suburbs though. In the 'pre-suburb' days of 50 to 100 years ago most rural towns had a relatively densely populated town center where most people in the town lived. It was entirely feasible to walk to the local stores to shop, to walk to work, school, church, parks, playgrounds, etc. Now, these same towns that are slapped with the name 'suburb' or 'bedroom community' are filled with what are called 'developments' (at least that's we called them growing up) which are carved out of farmland or forests and are usually miles from any kind of commercial area. These houses were located and designed around the idea of cheap and plentiful gasoline that in the next 50 years will become more expensive and scarcer.
Nationally, 90% of Americans drive to work. Let's assume 10% carpool. Total (on the books) employment is about 145 million, so 116 million Americans drive to work alone about 200 days out of the year. If the average person lives 5 miles from work and is getting 20 MPG, this means 11.6 billion gallons of gas are burned every year to simply commute to work. This equals about 258 million barrels and produces 278.4 billion pounds of CO2 gas.
Per capita, the United States uses the most energy of any nation on Earth and consequently, produces the most greenhouse gases. A good portion of this energy is simply wasted. As a nation, we can't rely on the government or corporations to turn this trend around of their own accord. The ultimate solution has to be demanded by citizens and consumers.


Kytherea said...

We went to the car show yesterday. Another couple from Long Island went with us and as we were moving through the different brands my friends wife kept admiring these HUGE cars. I said I would feel guilty about driving it and that I already felt guilty about the Buick Rendevous we own. She was absolutely clueless about why. I said to her in a few years if you own one of those monstrosities, people will throw bottles at you or key your car for being such a greedy bitch and driving such a gas guzzling destroyer. Like wearing fur or smoking cigarettes.

I think that NYC could do a LOT more to make the city bicycle friendly. In Austin Texas, the buses have bike bins in the front. You can throw your bike on and grab it off when you get to your stop. There should be more bike racks and maybe some bike storage for the Metro North, Path and LIRR commuters. They could take the train in and then get their bikes out of storage and ride to work, chain their bike in the racks at their work. After work and a bike ride back to Grand Central or Penn they can leave their bike safely in storage. Maybe NYC can offer tax breaks to people storing bikes and create bike lanes.

Maybe these idea's seem a little out there but I think it's the little things like this that are going to end up really making a difference.

babble on said...

Transportation policy begets energy policy begets foreign policy. Vancouver's dropping parking rates are proof positive that people will uses alternative forms of transport if you give them the opportunity.

Nice post!