Friday, February 29, 2008

Has the Time for Action on Climate Change Passed?

By Josh Stephens

For this issue of InTransition I spoke with a wide array of scholars, public officials, businesspeople and activists from around the United States to find out what the field of transportation planning can do to combat climate change. I got a different answer for every interview I conducted. It is only natural that a problem on the order of climate change -- arguably the greatest problem that humanity has faced or ever will face, short of a wayward asteroid -- would elude simple solutions.

The only agreement was that, despite good intentions and a concerted effort to conceive of solutions, America's response to climate change is in its infancy. And there isn't much time for it to grow up.

The question I did not ask in any of my interviews, perhaps because it is too depressing (or because I wanted to save it for another article) is, "What happens if we fail?" Actually, I'm not sure that "if" is at issue. The question should refer to "when." Judging from some of the projections, the matter may already be out of our hands.

Put together, all of the world's climate change mitigation efforts might, if we're lucky, reduce the amount of pollution we put into the atmosphere -- as opposed to merely reducing the rate of increase. Even if clean fuels, innovative engines and compact development can help cut greenhouse gas emissions by one tenth, one quarter or even a half, the atmosphere will continue to heat up from the gases that have already been released. (Never mind China, India, and the other developing countries that are asserting their right to unfettered commerce.) Ocean currents will continue to change. Storm patterns and rainfall will still go haywire. Waves will still lap at the ankles of Miami, Dhaka and Venice. Crops will still fail, and species will go extinct.

In fact, greenhouse gas emissions are not expected to fall to zero for another two centuries. Not because we'll have solved the problem but rather because that's when the earth's crust will finally be exhausted of fossil fuels. In the meantime, demand for those fuels continues apace and the rate of extraction will fall while fuel prices rise.

But there is no telling when pedestrian-friendly suburbs will be built; because zoning laws and the myth known as “the American dream” continue to spawn tract after tract of detached, dispiriting homes. And, having already sent the electric car to a premature death, there is also no telling where all this fiddling with hybrids, hydrogen and Smart Cars will lead. More likely than not, this country, and its transportation planners, will have to figure out how to operate its transportation network when many people can afford to drive -- whether they like it or not.

We have built a world -- of freeways, boulevards, suburbs and office parks -- that was designed and honed for a certain commodity at a certain price. So what do we do about would-be commuters marooned many miles from work by gas prices? How do we get cars off crowded, inefficient urban streets if there's no money to buy buses or build rail lines? How do we fix tens of thousands of crumbling bridges when the costs of steel, concrete, and gas are making billion the new million? What do we do with our ports and airports when the wheels of globalization begin to turn backwards? Where do we put the people driven off their land by rising tides -- and how do they pay for their relocation?

These questions are, perhaps, far more urgent than those about solutions. Solutions are uncertain. But the ravages of climate change are all but assured. In the future, all planning may be disaster planning.

Hyperbolic? I hope so. But the more people are afraid to talk about it, the worse the consequences will be.

I dearly hope that the strategies and solutions outlined in my article come to pass and that they work. I hope that everyone who reads it will take it not as a point of interest but rather as a mandate for action. In fact, I believe that this mandate is already taking hold, and my article is only a tiny part of a growing movement. But we must move quickly indeed.

In my article I compared this challenge to that of Sysiphus. But Sysiphus had one luxury that we do not: his mountain never got higher.

Josh Stephens is the author of the Winter 2008 issue’s cover story, “Transportation Planning Warms Up to Climate Change.”

Point-Counterpoint: Walking Distance to Transit

An item in last issue’s Research Exchange section titled “Pedestrians Walk Farther Than Expected” discussed an award-winning study that reported commuters were willing to walk more than the quarter- to one-third of a mile distance to rail stations conventionally viewed as the maximum. After reading our coverage and reviewing the study (“How Far, by Which Route, and Why? A Spatial Analysis of Pedestrian Preference”) in its entirety, a transportation consultant wrote to InTransition to challenge its findings. We contacted the study’s authors, who agreed to review these criticisms and offer a response. You can read that exchange here.

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Amtrak Quiet Car: Where Silence Sells

By Karl Vilacoba

My Tuesday morning train ride felt like it broke new ground for the rudeness of fellow passengers. At one point, there must have been a half-dozen cell phone conversations going on in my direct comfort zone, a maddening feeling for a guy who depends on that extra hour of pre-work shuteye.

On my train, people who loudly subject the rest of us to the unimportant details of their lives are usually scorned. I’ve seen out-of-hand cell phone talkers heckled, confronted and, in one case, even given a round of applause by a whole car full of riders once his conversation was done. But on this morning, it seemed the rules of commuter etiquette were collectively thrown out the vestibule.

My wife warns me I shouldn’t hold in my anger so much because it gets pent up, and one day it will blow. But my fantasies of meting out vigilante commuter justice aside, I’m too mild-mannered to turn around and tell someone to put a sock in it. I just wish a conductor would do it for me.

Out of curiosity, I searched around the Web the other day to see if any companies or transit agencies had come up with any interesting rules regarding cell phone abuse, and I came across a very novel approach being taken by Amtrak. In late 1999, a group of frustrated regular riders of the Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., morning train banded together and requested a car be set aside as a sanctuary from the beeps, blabbing and Beethoven symphonies. The Quiet Car soon became a reality and a patented concept.

The Quiet Car’s success shows not only that silence is a virtue, but silence sells.

“It has been popular enough that we’ve extended the Quiet Car to several Amtrak trains,” said Tracy Connell, a spokesperson for Amtrak. “I don’t have any stats on it, but I know the response has been very positive and we’ve had a lot of compliments on it.”

Quiet Car rules state that riders may not use any noise-making devices such as cell phones, pagers, laptops with audible features enabled, or handheld games and music players without headphones. Conversation must be kept in quiet, subdued tones. Conductors are instructed to ask anyone who disregards these rules to leave the car, Connell said.

The Quiet Car seems like a sensible way for Amtrak to balance the needs of riders seeking peace and quiet with those of business travelers who have work to do that requires their being in touch with the outside world. It also addresses a problem that will only get worse. At the time those passengers first took a stand in 1999, about 86 million people had cell phone subscriptions in the U.S., according to CTIA-The Wireless Association, an organization representing members of the wireless telecommunications industry. That number has since nearly tripled to about 254 million subscribers today.

So what’s the lesson here? If you’re looking for some peace and quiet on your commute, your best bet may be to gather up some friends and ask for it. Just please don’t do it over your cell phone, sitting next to me.