On Free Will, Morality and Transportation Infrastructure

A recent Streetsblog Network post on “How Infrastructure Shapes the Way We Move”  started a spirited discussion on a social psychology construct and its relationship to the way we view transportation infrastructure and its use by others.

The fundamental attribution error, according to blogger Michael D.  refers to “the tendency for people to over-attribute the behavior of others to personality or disposition and to neglect substantial contributions of environmental or situational factors.  Thus, the fundamental attribution error in transportation choice: You choose driving over transit because transit serves your needs poorly, but Joe Straphanger takes transit because he’s the kind of person who takes transit. This is the sort of trap we find ourselves in when considering how to fund transportation, be it transit, cycling, walking or driving”.  “But”, he says, “that infrastructure itself and the services provided on it are a strong influence on the transportation choices people make.”

In other words, as one commenter put it,  “If you build it, they will come.  More lanes = more cars. Less lanes = less cars …… More bike lanes/routes = more cyclists. Less bike lanes/routes = less cyclists”.

Another commenter suggested that  The Onion explains the social behavior theory better than any academic blog post:
Report: 98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others    -  “With traffic congestion, pollution, and oil shortages all getting worse, now is the time to shift to affordable, efficient public transportation,” APTA director Howard Collier said. “Fortunately, as this report shows, Americans have finally recognized the need for everyone else to do exactly that.”

Sustainable Transportation: More Than Cars, Trains and Buses

Motorized vehicles are a major part of our local transportation system and must be part of the sustainability equation.  However, more and more, policies to promote biking and walking are a big part of the strategy in cities seeking to become more healthy, more vibrant, more attractive, safer, economically viable … sustainable.  Bike lanes and bike paths, sidewalks, parking policies, land use planning, urban design guidelines … there is no dearth of examples of what many places are doing to improve pedestrian and bicycle accessibility.  There are several illustrations of creative planning mentioned on the OCL Facebook fan page  and this blog.  

In places with snow, where there are sidewalks there is a snow removal issue.   Sean Kirst’s March 3 column in The Post-Standard opens a conversation on ‘walkability’ that will hopefully lead to municipal governments in Onondaga County considering how best to ensure that their residents have the ability to walk safely alongside the streets in winter, as well  as to drive safely on them.

A Green City on the Blue Lake

People everywhere are making the case for Complete Streets - a movement that says streets ought to be for everyone, whether young or old, motorist or bicyclist, walker or wheelchair user, bus rider or shopkeeper.  Many states, cities and towns are instituting policies requiring streets that are designed for people, not just cars.  Unfortunately, not all tranportation planners and engineers have gotten the message.

Check out this music video on YouTube by Clevelanders protesting the design of a new bridge over the Cuyahoga River that fails to include pedestrian and bike access.  The Ohio DOT says it’s too late to consider changes to the Environmental Impact Statement on the project.  But the rappers ask that the State of Ohio “take a step forward and not a step back”, to “make a transition from the tradition of carbon emissions” ,  and “engineer a bridge that will bring new people” to Cleveland to help it thrive.  They make the call for a Green city to embrace healthy tranportation for a healthier population, and  “lead the nation with green alternative transportation”.  Here are a few of the lyrics:

Look to the future and lead the nation
With green alternative transportation

Now is the time to make a transition
From the tradition of carbon emission

Make our streets and bridges complete
Not just for cars but for bikes and feet

The people have spoken and make no mistake
They want a green city on a blue lake.

Will residents of Syracuse and Onondaga County sing this song?

California Adopts First Statewide Green Building Code

On January 12, California passed the nation’s first statewide green building code,  which will cut water use, require recycling of construction waste and step up energy efficiency in new homes, schools,  and commercial buildings.  All new State buildings have been required to meet at least LEED silver standards since 2004.  The new regulations, which take effect January 2011, will help the state reach its goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 33 percent by 2020.  Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has been a leader in fighting climate change and protecting the environment.  

While some environmental groups protested that the standards did not go far enough – they are less stringent of standards already adopted by San Francisco, LA and more than 50 other California jurisdictions – the mandatory Green Buildings Code (CALGREEN) requires  developers to cut water use in buildings by 20 percent by using more efficient fixtures, would divert 50% of all construction debris away from landfills to recycling, and would require that strict building standards be verified by inspectors.  The California Air Resources Board projects that the mandatory standards will remove three million metric tons of emissions from the air by 2020.

“Skip the Bag, Save the River”: How D.C. Succeeded Where Seattle Failed

no. of plastic bags used in the U.S. every 5 seconds

Depicts 60,000 plastic bags, the number used in the U.S. every 5 seconds, from Chris Jordan "Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait"

Beginning January 1, 2010, District of Columbia businesses that sell food or alcohol must charge consumers 5 cents for each disposable paper or plastic carryout bag. The business keeps 1 cent, or 2 cents if it offers a rebate when customers bring their own bag. The remaining 3 or 4 cents go to the new Anacostia River Protection Fund, which will use it to provide reusable bags, educate the public about litter, and clean up the river.

Although other cities have banned plastic bags or required recycling, D.C’s law is the first of its kind in a major American city.  In 2007 San Francisco banned plastic bags and Oakland and Malibu soon followed.  But in Seattle, an effort to impose a 20 cent fee on plastic bags failed to pass a referendum, and in NYC, Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal for a 5 cent fee went nowhere.  Mexico City enacted a ban on thin plastic carry bags last year.

So how did D.C. manage this environmentalism first?  According The Oregonian, D.C. council member Tommy Wells followed two basic strategies: First, focus the debate on a specific problem – in this case pollution of the Anacostia River – rather than the general environmental issue. Second, include incentives for businesses, which might oppose measures that alienate customers or raise costs – hence the 1 cent holdback for businesses’ administrative costs in collecting the bag fee.

 The District promoted the program using the campaign Skip the Bag, Save the River,” referring to the heavily polluted Anacostia River.  The D.C. Department of the Environment found in a 2008 study that 47 percent of the trash in the Anacostia’s tributaries and 21 percent in the river itself was plastic bags.  Bags clog stormwater drains, get caught in vegetation, and harm aquatic wildlife. 

China banned ultrathin plastic bags in 2008 and also prohibited all stores from giving out free plastic bags, to save the millions of barrels of petroleum used to produce them and mountains of trash they become.  China joined Ireland, Uganda, South Africa, Russia, and Hong Kong, according to TreeHugger.com.

Lawmakers in Virginia  are considering measures similar to the D.C. bill. Could Syracuse or Onondaga County possibly become the first locality in New York State to enact this “green” and relatively inexpensive measure to save energy, reduce waste, and improve the environment?

Marketing Action on Climate Change

Even as the scientific evidence of climate change and its damaging effects is growing, American public opinion is moving in the other direction. A Pew Research Center survey released in October 2009 found a “sharp decline” in the percentage of Americans who see solid evidence of rising global temperatures – 57% v. 71% of respondents 18 months earlier – and fewer see global warming as a serious threat – 35% compared to 44% in April 2008.  Younger people, however, are now far more likely than older Americans to see global warming as a very serious problem – among those aged 18-29, 46% today, versus 41% in 2008 say global warming is a very serious problem.   The Pew survey found that a majority of Americans – 56% – favor the U.S. joining with other countries to set standards to address climate change and about half favor limits on carbon emissions.

A recent Financial Times/Harris Poll in the United States and the five largest European countries finds that Americans under 65 are less likely than Europeans to see climate change as a major threat, While large majorities of people over 65 in all six countries see climate change as posing a threat to the world, fewer Americans (27%), than people in Britain (31%), France (46%), Italy (49%) or Spain (35%) see it as a “large threat.”

There is one related issue, however, on which Americans are more likely to feel strongly. Fully 83% of Americans under 65 believe the United States needs to reduce oil and gas imports from other countries. Those who feel this way about their country in the other five countries vary from 50% in France to 71% in Italy.

Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change and considered an expert on public opinion on global warming, said that as the economy pushes issues like climate change farther from the top of the public’s priorities, framing action on climate change in terms of energy security and green job creation is a good strategy.

Syracuse 2010 Revisited: Land Use Planning Challenges

The Syracuse-Onondaga County Planning Agency  is in the process of updating Onondaga County’s  11-year old 2010 Development Guide –  a plan that calls for investment in existing communities, sustainable urban and suburban settlement patterns, preservation of infrastructure and transportation assets, and protection of agricultural land and the natural environment.  The update will take into account demographic and development trends and develop new policies for sustainable growth.

The 2010 Guide is just that, a guide; implementation of the plan requires compliance by the towns, villages, and city, and the individuals and businesses that compose the county.  Megan Costa, who heads Planning Services for SOCPA, gave OCL a look at some of the regional trends and challenges at our October 20 study session

Since 2000, almost 7,000 new residential parcels were created in the County, including 147 major subdivisions over 2,600 acres.  All of this occurred with no new population growth.  Average home size is up 40 percent in 20 years (even as family size decreases). Average lot size for units built inside the sanitary district is almost one acre. The number of rural acres used per new housing unit is almost three times the national average for metro areas.

From 2001-2008, water infrastructure expanded to include 290 miles of new water main, 15 new pumping stations, and 13 new storage facilities.  In 2007, more than 57,000 feet of new sewer pipe was installed for new developments. Since 1998, the county added more than 12,000 acres to the sanitary district. At the same time, we also have a massive network of aging water and sewer pipes, capacity and overflow issues, challenges serving rural areas, and new federal and state permitting requirements. Since 2000, we have added 61 miles of road, mostly residential streets.  Daily vehicle use is up 43 percent since 1990.

We have lost farmland, increased our carbon footprint, generated demand for new tax-supported public facilities and services, and abandoned neighborhoods, buildings and job centers in the city and inner ring suburbs.   Are we ready to choose a new definition of progress?