Sunday, December 13, 2009

Green Metropolis, Part II (Chapters 2 and 3)

Chapter two of Green Metropolis ("Liquid Civilization") isn't as directly relevant to Uptown as most of the other chapters, but there's still some good topics for discussion. In short, Owen argues that oil is a, if not the, primary environmental issue today. Even those issues not directly caused by oil are created, or at least enabled, by the existence of oil and its use in modern technology and the ways in which it has shaped the modern world. "Driving is driving," writes Owen, and he argues that if society is really going to tackle the tough environmental problems it's going to take a lot more than just switching over to hybrid cars. More fuel-efficient cars (or use of alternative energy sources) are part of the solution, but an auto-centric society leads to increased sprawl, as well as less incentive for public transportation or communities compact enough for easy walking or biking.

It was in this chapter that I once again started thinking about HOURCAR's role in Uptown. I think HOURCAR is a great program; car sharing does help more people live without a car, yet still have easy and affordable access to one when they do need it. I think that makes both economic and environmental sense. Still, HOURCAR has at times seemed to be too focused on the use of hybrids at the expense of seeing the big picture (although that does seem to have shifted a bit). As recently as May 2009, for example, HOURCAR was saying that they were not going to purchase a pickup truck because hybrid trucks were too expensive. I can understand why they might choose to focus their money elsewhere, but at the same time the most important thing is not that the cars themselves are hybrid (although that's certainly a bonus), but that these cars help more people live without a car. They're obviously still driving, but are probably doing far, far less of if than they would if they had a car of their own. There's a blend to be struck between quality and quantity, and I think at this point the priority of car share organizations should be to blanket the city with these cars. If more cars means going with a non-hybrid then so be it. (In defense of HOURCAR, I should note that their current fleet of cars has expanded, and now includes a wider range of options than in the past. They seem to be trying to find that balance, and given their recent expansion it seems to be somewhat successful.)

Moving on to chapter three, "There and Back," there's a lot good stuff that fits in well with discussions about the greater Uptown area. Some of the chapter focuses on more suburban-style zoning, new sprawl, and long commutes, but Owen also makes some arguments that are more immediately relevant to the city and neighborhood. Some interesting bits from this chapter that caught my eye:
  • There can be contradictions in what a neighborhood or city says it wants and what the actual regulations allow. This is obvious, of course, but among other things Owen asks why "restrictive" regulations are often considered protective, when in fact they often restrict the very features they're intended to protect. This seems to be at the core of many, many discussions about Uptown and any future development. Locals want an urban neighborhood filled with lots of local businesses and services, walkable, great public transportation, safe, and all the rest, yet frequently turn around and in the next breath talk about concerns about too much traffic and a dislike of density, among other topics. To support all those local independent businesses, for example, we either need to have a big enough local resident customer base (which translates into a need for increased density), or we have to bring in a lot of customers from elsewhere, and realistically they're not all going to arrive by bus, bike, or foot. There are ways to balance these various issues, but that means going beyond simply focusing on vague terms like "character" or "green" and instead defining what exactly it is that we want, and what we're willing to compromise or change in order to get it. Recent discussions about some local zoning changes (like the upzoning along the Greenway and along Hennepin and Lyndale) highlight some of these issues.
  • Difficult parking and bad traffic can be a good thing. Tough to find or expensive parking or frustrating traffic jams are a strong incentive to choose alternative methods of commuting. In New York City, Owen writes, reducing congestion "would be a loss for the environment, not a gain." In Uptown, things get a bit more complicated. Uptowners can't hop on a subway (or LRT line) and skip the traffic jams; we sit in buses that get stuck in that same traffic. Traffic congestion might increase the appeal of walking or biking, but it doesn't necessarily help with the bus. On the other hand, I'd rather be sitting on a bus and reading (assuming I can get a seat) than behind a wheel, but that's not the case for many people. So, while bad traffic might increase the incentives for people to choose to live closer to their work, or to stop commuting to Minneapolis from Lakeville, I don't think it has a great impact on Uptown specifically. The parking situation, however, could be a different story. I have no problems with Uptown having increasingly tight parking in the residential neighborhoods. I think the commercial areas need to have appropriate parking available (although not free), but as far as residential parking goes, locals can either rent or buy a place with a garage, deal with street parking, rent a garage space from someone else, or go without a car. Increasingly inconvenient parking coupled with increases in availability of options such as HOURCAR, as well as improved public transportation, could provide the incentive for more local residents to either live without a car, cut down numbers of cars within a family, or otherwise reduce the numbers of trips taken by car. That would be good for both the neighborhood and for the environment.
  • "Public transit itself can be bad for the environment if it facilitates rather than discourages sprawl." This isn't Uptown-specific, but I think it's worth discussing. The Southwest LRT line does exactly that; it bypasses dense urban areas and encourages yet more development in places like Eden Prairie. Another Owen quote: commuter lines (which is what the proposed SW line will essentially be) enables sprawl at the end of the line and does "almost nothing to reduce car use in the central city." LRT might not be coming to Uptown, but I hope we can actually see some movement towards getting real transportation solutions in the city itself. It's also not as if there isn't room for significant transit ridership increases in Uptown and Lyn-Lake; despite the plentiful existing public transportation options the majority of residents are still making most of their trips by car. There is a lot of room for improvement.
  • Free-flowing traffic should not be considered a public entitlement. I like this one. Unfortunately, Uptown once again runs up against the bus problem: slow traffic means buses sit in traffic, too, so slow traffic in the city isn't doing much to encourage switching to other forms of transportation. Still, I think it's an interesting point. Keeping traffic moving should be a consideration when it comes to urban planning, but putting it first and foremost in development concerns (which seems to often be the case) is putting the needs of cars before the needs of people. It would be ironic if it became faster for someone from a more suburban (and less walkable) neighborhood or city along the Southwest Corridor or the Northstar Line and commute into downtown than for someone to live in Uptown and commute downtown. And that brings me to my final thought: commuting to and from work is not everything. Reducing commuting trips by car is important, and does have environmental benefits, but it's only one (relatively small) part of the larger environmental puzzle.

1 comment:

  1. "It would be ironic if it became faster for someone from a more suburban (and less walkable) neighborhood or city along the Southwest Corridor or the Northstar Line and commute into downtown than for someone to live in Uptown and commute downtown."

    It already is. At rush hour, from Fridley to Downtown on Northstar, it's 20 minutes (guaranteed). At the same time of day, from Uptown to Downtown on the 6 it's about 22 minutes, and potentially slower in traffic, if the weather is bad, or if there are riders requiring the lift. Great incentive to live in the city, huh?