Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for May 20th, 2008

Oklahoma City swaps highway for park

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USA Today except it was five days ago and Sgt Turmeric tweeted me and I missed it.

Oklahoma has a radical solution for repairing the state’s busiest highway.

Tear it down. Build a park.

The aging Crosstown Expressway — an elevated 4.5-mile stretch of Interstate 40 — will be demolished in 2012. An old-fashioned boulevard and a mile-long park will be constructed in its place.

And of course many have done and discovered that removing the freeway not only improves the taffic flow, it also improves the way the city works – as Sna Francisco and Seoul and many others can testify.

“Highways don’t belong in cities. Period,” says John Norquist, who was mayor of Milwaukee when it closed a highway. “Europe didn’t do it. America did. And our cities have paid the price.”

Well he is partly right right. Paris went ahead and built both the peripherique around the historic core and new fast roads along the banks of the Seine. It was in one of its tunnels that Princess Diana died. London was going to build a series of motorway rings to link up the radial routes but only the M25 got completed – and later expanded – and it has been jammed since day one and immediately after every expansion. A uproar of protest stopped the inner “motorway box” except for one leg in the east end from Blackwall tunnel to the A11 and a bit of the Westway which connects Marylebone to the A40. But some of the most destructive proposals never got oiff the drawing boards and London is all the better for it. Most German cities have closed their centres to through traffic altogether. You can get across by tram, walk or bike, But if you want to drive you have to go around the long way.

The surge of US interstate building coincided with the worst excesses of “urban renewal” and the “white flight” to the suburbs and it will take a long time for US urban areas to recover, but some have turned around the process, and more want to go that way. Vancouver of course famously fought off the freeway that would have taken out Strathcona and Chinatown and destroyed the waterfront. Only the Georgia Viaduct and a short bit of double decking at Canada Place shows what was intended.

Which makes it all the more puzzling why it is thought a good idea now to widen the freeway through Coquitlam and Burnaby right up the Vancouver’s eastern limit. Are we really still stuck fifty years behind the rest of the world? Urban freeways never delivered what their proponents claimed, and cities that have got rid of them have flourished. It was the fight against Robert Moses and his freeway fantasies that actually started the modern urbanist movement. We know this is not going to work to reduce congestion – and it will spread the problem further. We also know that to get where we need to be for a sustainable future we need more transportation options – indeed even the provincial government now admits that. But it still wants to build the freeway first and says that it will “reduce greenhouse gas emissions since it will cut idling”. Which is a flat lie, and one that has been exposed for some time.

(By the way the Google search on that one three word tag below turned up another 72,300 links)

Written by Stephen Rees

May 20, 2008 at 5:10 pm

Silly Security

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Cory Doctorow has a good piece in today’s Guardian about how daft our current security methods are. There’s also a link from that to an earlier one which seems to be more specific to the UK.

On my most recent trip by air to New York we had to change planes in Toronto both ways. And that meant that even though we were inside the so called “quarantine area” all the time, we had to pass through the security screen not one but twice each way. As though somehow we would have been able to pick up sharp knives or explosives while on board a plane or walking from the gate to the bag claim – not that we had any checked baggage (and we had to report that at least four times too). And of course each time we had to go through the same time consuming, degrading rutuals. Which achieve absolutely nothing in terms of safety.

(hint: you can’t really blow up an airplane with hair-gel and iPods).

But you are not allowed to say that the Department of Homeland Security (there) or the Border Services Agency (here) is a ludicrous waste of resources – because we have been pressganged into the “war on terror” – even though our opponents appear to have turned their attentions to the much easier and conveniently located targets we have been sending their way for the last seven years. To no good effect.

The sudden loss of life on 9/11 was shocking, of course. But it is still much less significant in terms of statistical probability than the daily carnage on the bit of the transportation system most of use. But we still spend far more time and effort trying to eliminate any risk at all from flying, or riding a train, but shrug helplessly when looking at road deaths – and then lecture cyclists about why they should wear helmets. Even though the great risk of on road cyclist head injuries only comes from the risk of being hit by a car driven by someone who has a short attention span and a problem with both impatience and anger management.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 20, 2008 at 11:40 am

Posted in Road safety, Transportation

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Go Green — Buy a Used Car. It’s Better Than a Hybrid

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Wired has a whole bunch of articles today that challenge the Green perceptions of our choices and suggest that reducing carbon emissions trumps all else. In some cases that not only challenges perceived wisdom but common sense too! (Hat tip to the bokashiman for this).

The championing of nuclear power is not exactly a ground breaking idea – but the superficial analysis ignores the incredible dangers of nuclear waste , which remains radioactive for centuries and longer, but also ignores the huge potential of amazing nuclear power station just 93 million miles away. Earth gets vast amounts of solar energy – but we humans use remarkably little of it. For a start, does your neighborhood allow you to dry your clothes on a line? Solar furnaces in places like Arizona could meet much of the US demand for electricity.

But the one I take most exception to is the claim that a used car is greener than a Prius – because of the energy used in making new cars. Obviously you are going to have to be a bit selective about which used car to buy – not just the make and model but the individual car itself. Second had car dealers replaced horse traders as the least trusted members of society (“would you buy a used car from this man?”) for very good reasons. Recent press stories here have highlighted how little consumer protection we have from importing US lemons to ICBC flogging people rebuilt wrecks.

If you are lucky you might find an old Geo Metro with low mileage and a complete maintenance record. But mostly people who now have such vehicles are hanging on to them. Far too many secondhand cars are not roadworthy and as we do not have compulsory testing for safety anymore – Van der Zalm got rid of it but we kept AirCare tests – you have to rely on some private sector service like the BCAA to check out your purchase. And the markup on used cars by dealers and the rate at which they fly through auctions and resellers is bewildering – quite deliberately – since most people in the used car business really do not care about you, they just want to make a quick sale and a profit. They are not in business for the sake of good works or saving the planet!

Cars are better built these days and last longer. Thank the Asian invasion for forcing the US makers to raise their game. But also think about spares availability when you buy an older car. One of the reasons that the archetypal older house in the burbs is surrounded by old cars is one is a runner and the others are for cannibalizing for spares. I think that land might be better used for growing veggies than allowing old Chevies to rot in peace.

One of the many things Avory Lovins got wrong is that by now cars were supposed to be built differently, using new materials like carbon fibres so that embedded energy in things like steel pressings would have been reduced. While there is more structural plastic in cars than say twenty years ago, we are still nowhere near the sort of cars that can be rebuilt continuously like the dear old Morris Minor, which could be kept going almost indefinitely by a home repair whiz with access to replacement parts makers. New cars are also technically much more complex as computers have replaced carburetors.

Morris Minor

Newer cars are also more fuel efficient – but most models use that to improve performance not fuel economy, as well as hitting ever tighter emissions standards. So my cautious conclusion is some old cars might be greener than a Prius – but it is not gong to be easy for an average car buyer to determine which one will be cheaper to keep going. Obviously joining a car coop and using your own power more often are better choices – and, if you do not live in Greater Vancouver, using transit might well be a viable option too.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 20, 2008 at 10:21 am