Several officials came to the Transportation Research Board’s annual meeting in Washington last week fresh off a visit last month to the U.N. climate change conference in Copenhagen. What they saw was promising, a couple quipped (independently of each other), and they weren’t talking about anything that went down inside the delegate hall.
Everywhere in Copenhagen, they saw an ideal solution to the co-dependent problems of climate change, auto congestion, poor land use and public health. Everywhere, there were Danes biking.
“I know it’s not just because the Danes are nicer people than we are,” said Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board. “They have really done things and spent money to make this happen.”
In the Netherlands, said an admiring Federal Transit Administration deputy administrator Therese McMillan, bikes are actually afforded the same road space as cars!
It’s easy to imagine the auto-obsessed Americans’ backlash to such a policy here, carving unnecessarily wide bike berths out of roads too crowded for the cars they were, umm, originally intended for. In America, the predominant relationship is an adversarial one: Bikers versus drivers. In the Netherlands, most drivers would probably rather be on bikes, too, if they could.
Implicit in these wistful anecdotes is an engineering conundrum in America (the opposite of the behavioral fix proposed in the Idea Lobby earlier this week). How do we make it possible for people to commute by “active travel” — biking, walking, or biking and walking, to the subway — when just about everything we’ve built to date has been designed around cars?
“Unfortunately, the existing built environment isn’t helping us,” Nichols said, “and it makes it much more difficult and expensive to meet those goals.”
This isn’t just a matter of engineering lithium-ion electric car batteries, but re-engineering whole communities. If you live in certain urban areas, you may have seen a prototype: the trendy mixed-use development arisen out of an abandoned industrial complex complete with condos, restaurants and metro access
Advocates of “transit-oriented development” stress, though, that they’re not just talking about Starbucks on the ground floor and yuppies up above. Such communities should provide within car-free access practical necessities from a dentist’s office to a real supermarket. And the local residents ought to include not just people who don’t want to use a car, but those who can’t: the elderly, the disabled, the unlicensed and low-income workers.
This kind of development today makes up only about 2 to 5 percent of the housing market. By 2030, estimated Mariia Zimmerman, the vice president for policy with transit-oriented development advocacy group Reconnecting America, it’s projected to make up a quarter of demand.
Building such communities will require thinking simultaneously about challenges we’re accustomed to tackling separately. Transit officials will have to work with agencies such as Housing and Urban Development. And policymakers will need to recognize the benefits of transit-oriented development not just for the environment but also for our health.
A study published in the British journal “The Lancet” in December made just this point: Some of the greatest public health benefits associated with reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it found, come not from curbing pollution, but from the uptick in exercise that would follow a less auto-oriented lifestyle.
New Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced at the TRB meeting’s culminating luncheon what amounts to a major policy shift in this direction.
“Our new policy for selecting major transit projects will work to promote livability, rather than hinder it,” he said. “We want to base our decisions on how much transit helps the environment, how much it improves development opportunities and how it makes our communities better places to live.”
The previous criteria only asked: How much will a project shorten commute times, and how much will it cost?
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and Christian Science Monitor. Her column appeared first in the online magazine Miller-McCune.com, an arm of the nonprofit Miller-McCune Center.