Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Carnage Saddens Missoula Community

Four girls where struck by a drunk driver over the weekend in Missoula along highway 200 connecting Missoula with East Missoula. All four were local high school girls; two of the girls died at the scene while the other two suffered fairly major injuries and were taken to the hospital.

This incident has really shocked all of Missoula and I even found myself choking up over this incident. I'm sorry to admit that I have become desensitized to hearing stories about cyclists and pedestrians getting struck and killed by vehicles. It just seems to be one of those daily occurrences that I read about almost everyday as a bike/ped advocate.

But this really hit home and I can't really explain it. There have been three other pedestrians hit and killed in the Missoula area this year that I can remember and while I was angry, nothing hit home like this. One man was even struck and killed this Monday and that incident almost seems like an after thought judging by the amount of attention and comments being posted (135 vs 10). I even witnessed a man in a crosswalk be hit by a car (he ended up being ok) and I didn't seem to make much of it at the time other than to think "fucking stupid driver."

Is it the youth of the girls? Does my grief over these girls that I don't even know say something about me or the society we live in? Are we supposed to value their lives more because they are still perceived to be young and Innocent while the other three pedestrian deaths have been of more elderly people that have already lived their lives? Are those three separate deaths any less tragic and sad? Or is it simply the shock from comprehending 4, not 1, people getting hit by a truck?

All I know is, this incident has created a hole in the heart of our community and there seems to be an outpouring of grief and support to try and fill it. If you would like to donate, please see here for details.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Riding in a Winter Wonderland

The snow has finally accumulated sufficiently in Missoula to have made the last month of getting around town a little more difficult on a bicycle. Snow, ice, freezing fog, slush, gravel, and de-icer all combine to make the roads just that much more treacherous, not to mention the limited amount of day time light and the confined roadways from piled snow that force cars to basically take over the bicycle lane on certain streets.

I have given up riding the fixie for now and switched to the used mountain bike I purchased this summer. The wide, aggressively treaded tires work great on the snow, ice, and had pack that dominates most of the side streets in Missoula ( you must understand that Missoula, being a town with not much money to spend on snow removal, concentrates on the main roads with the most traffic that are critical to moving people around and so the side streets are left to be turned into hard-packed public ice hockey rinks).

The only problem comes when my tires hit a patch of semi-packed snow that has warmed above freezing. This stuff is not yet wet slush and still has the consistency of snow, but when the front tire hits a patch of it, the weight of the bike pushes the snow away from the tire and your then forced to quickly try and regain your balance before your front tire goes out from under you. In these conditions I talked to a lot of people or heard conversations that involved "my hip hurts" or "I ate it hard around a corner." Luckily I have yet to fall, though I have been forced to put my foot down more than a few times.

Predictably the miles I'm putting on my bicycle have plunged (I'll have an updated millage figure within a week) as I have switched to the bus in the most horrid of weather - below zero - and have cut out trips from just not wanting to deal with riding other than for essentials, such as commuting and to get to the grocery store. And of course I haven't been on a bike for the last week since Ashley and I made our way up to her parents for the holidays; I couldn't imagine a better time to be on a bike getting in some exercise than during this food heavy time of year.

However, with all the extra hazards that you face as a cyclist during the winter, there is nothing quite like riding through a few inches of freshly fallen snow. The soft crunch the snow makes under the bicycle tire and the muffled silence of the world newly peaceful really does create a different and wonderful world to be riding through.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Happy Holidays

Photo by Feuillu via Flickr

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Eat Fluffy or Get Rid of the Family SUV?

A tough choice for any family, but according to a new study recently published the family dog looks to be contributing more to global warming than that favorite villain of environmentalists... the SUV. Read the full story here.

This really is disappointing news, if only this study had been published before I went on my carfree crusade I could have saved myself a lot of useless headache. Part of my reasoning for going carfree for a year was to reduce my ecological footprint, but it seems this new study gives me an easier alternative.

Rather than giving up my '83 Toyota Landcruiser that only gets 14 miles-to-the-gallon I could have been practicing a little population control on the neighborhood dogs, having a tasty meal, and saving the planet all at the same time. I could be out there stalking around my neighborhood at night dressed all in black luring neighbor's dogs out with the promise of steak, then capturing them for my planet saving plan... just garnish with some seasoning and a side of baked potatoes. I could still be driving around with a clean conscience and I could have had more of an impact than by giving up on driving... all the while hot having to screw around with riding a bike in subzero temperatures.

Now, I am only kidding as I never intentionally eat such a meal. But it is amazing to think that a pet could be twice as harmful to the environment as an SUV, mainly because of the food that we feed them. I think this study is great because pet ownership is something that most American enjoys and also an aspect of people's live that hasn't received such an analysis. The impact of our transportation and food systems are well known, continually being debated and revised. But pet ownership is something that completely fell under the scope of any analysis. I doubt this will seriously wake people up to the idea of getting rid of fluffy, but maybe it will inspire more debate and a new look at our collective ecological footprint.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Random Bicycle Crap Fridays

Usually I post things relating to the ridiculous on Fridays, but today I want to highlight something inspirational, something that could utterly transform the usefulness and practicality of bicycles, and a few things seen around Missoula. Enjoy.

First, the Revolution:

Second, the Inspirational: A group of High School students in Florida have started their own "bike Bus" to school with amazing results.

High School Bike Bus from Keri Caffrey on Vimeo.

Third, something seen at Target:

Fourth, seen in downtown Missoula, who needs a bus stop when you have:

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Parking Wars in Downtown Missoula

Missoula's downtown faces many of the same problems that most downtowns in America face. One of those problems is dealing with parking. Our cities long term planning envisions big growth for our little city over the next 20 years, especially in our urban core (seen above) where a lot more people will not only come to shop and eat lunch, but also increasingly come to live. To deal with this growth and the subsequent need to accommodate more cars downtown, Missoula's Downtown Master Plan calls for the building of seven new publicly owned multi-story parking structures at the cost of tens of millions of dollars to tax payers and using up precious real estate for the storage of our communities vehicles.

Recently this issue came up in Missoula's city council and discussed further in a great local list serve updated by one of our council members to keep Missoula citizens informed. A possible update to Missoula's parking meter system erupted into the biggest debate I have yet to witness occur over the email list serve. Over 30 emails went back and forth detailing almost all points of view people have on parking downtown.

Friend and colleague Jordan Hess made some very succinct point about the absurdity of spending public money to subsidize parking downtown. Jordan had this too say:

There is no such thing as free parking. Ever. Even the parking at Walmart is highly
subsidized in the form of infrastructure improvements the the city has to foot the bill for (such
as the idea of adding a second left turn lane from Reserve to Mullan).

If parking in the urban core is free, than it will be taken up by people parking for a long period
of time, such as employees or area residents and it won't be available for customers of
downtown businesses or for folks stopping by government offices. There are many ways to
properly price downtown parking to make it hassle-free and affordable. If parking were free, I
believe it would actually be a strain on downtown businesses because less would be available
to their customers. It would certainly be a strain on city budgets.

Building new parking structures is far more expensive than providing premier transit. At
$50,000+ per space
(I've seen figures more in line with $15,000 - $30,000 per space),
parking structures are an extremely expensive way to get people downtown. It is absurd to
imply that Missoula can't have a good transit system because we are not a large city full of
wealthy people. There are solutions for our size of community.

I'm going to use the University (of Montana) as an example, because I am more familiar with
it than with downtown in terms of parking and transportation, but the two function similarly in
these regards. On campus, ASUM spends about $0.65 per ride provided on the Park and Ride.
While this may seem like a lot, in order to provide parking for the same amount of money, a
parking space would have to turn over more than 5 times a day, 365 days a year for 40 years
(a rather generous lifespan for a parking garage). This doesn't take into account the cost of
maintaining the garage (about $1,000 per space per year).

Consider this: paying for one person to NOT use a parking space is the exact same thing as
building one new parking space. If by providing better bus service, I opt not to use an
on-campus parking space, it is functionally identical to the university building one additional
parking space, but the difference is that it cost the university a fraction of the cost.

We need to use this model downtown. Do not build any additional parking. Instead, spend this
money on increasing transit into downtown. This WILL free up parking used by people who
find the current level of transit service to be inconvenient. This newly available parking can be
used by folks who cannot or simply choose not to ride transit.

I couldn't agree more. Providing alternatives to driving and parking is a much more cost effective way to use a communities limited resources. Missoula's zoning regulations allow for business to replace one parking spot with 8 bike parking spots. Even if you figure that surface parking costs between $5,000 - $10,000 per spot then exchanging one parking space for 8 is a great value. Not only does a developer save money, but the city saves from reduced impacts on city streets from encouraging people to ride bicycles, and everyone wins when congestion is reduced. Eight bicycle parking spots would probably cost between $500 - $800 while an equivalent number of surface parking spots for vehicles would cost at least $40,000. Big difference.

Planners and urban design theorists are starting to come around to the idea that "if you build it, they will come." One commenter on the list serve said
so long as personal vehicles remain the preferred and affordable means for people to go to and from Downtown, it is necessary to accommodate vehicles. This is the standard argument used for everything from road expansion to our current federal transportation spending.

If you build a large 6 lane expressway, it will encourage people to drive and if you design cities to sprawl and build large box stores with large parking lots then people will largely be forced to drive. Building more roads will not reduce traffic and building more parking spaces will not reduce parking problems, but in fact induce people to drive and use those extra spaces. This situation is called the Jevons Paradox in which gains in efficiency actually encourages more consumption. Homes built today are more energy efficient than those built 40 years ago, but they are also so much bigger to the point that the average house uses more energy than 40 years ago.

This works just as well in reverse. If you reduce road capacities, congestion is actually reduced as people find better and easier ways to get around that doesn't require driving. At the same time, if bicycle infrastructure is invested in and mass transit increased this will induce demand for these services as it becomes more convenient. Not only does a community spend less money to accommodate locally focused transportation but it frees up real estate when fewer roads need to be expanded and fewer parking structures built. This extra real estate can be invested in, creating wealth and jobs in the local community rather than creating a larger tax bill for city residents.

Fewer roads and parking spaces and more transit, bicycle infrastructure, and buildable real estate = lower tax payer costs, more wealth, more investment, more jobs, and a more vibrant, resilient, and livable community.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Solutions to Climate Change must focus more on behavior and less on technology

Much of the focus this week in the media has been centered around the summit in Copenhagen focusing on climate change and the pledges of governments to cut emissions. But the media misses half of the solution in many cases; only focusing narrowly on technologies that can combat global warming and largely ignoring how people's behaviors are the true culprits of green house gas emissions. While a hybrid vehicle might be better than a regular SUV, a bike is even better and a person changing their behavior from driving to biking will do more for the environment than simply changing the tool that people use to express their everyday behavior.

An article in the Mother Nature Network by Ken Edelstein got me thinking about this subject. Even so called "Green" media outlets such as Treehugger and EcoGeek, when covering a topic such as transportation, usually discuss the latest hybrid or electric vehicle rather than the much more green option of not driving at all. Four out of seven of today's top articles in the transportation section of Treehugger are about cars. As Ken points out in his MNN article, stories about the latest in vehicular technologies provide a Wow factor that connects with American's love affair with the car

But I think it goes deeper than that and our current economic downturn can provide a little bit of insight. With the economic downturn everyone is suffering, not least of all the media industry and people don't like change. There is a big emphasis on the need for recovery and for things to get "back to normal." By normal I mean more cars sold, more vehicle miles traveled, more consumption, and a bigger than last year holiday sales season. Media outlets especially want this so that their advertising revenue can return to normal. I'm not claiming this is some conspiracy, it is just that people and media outlets perceive "back to normal" as being in their interest.

Thats why we have a government that wants us to go out and spend and a stimulus package that is designed to inject money back into the system. In Obama's opinion it is better to saddle us with debt so that we can spend now than it is to be frugal and let creative destruction take affect and reorganize our economic system. Its the same policy Bush put in place after the Dotcom bubble and 9/11; lower taxes, borrow more, and take out your credit cards and go to the mall.

Rather than learn lessons from my grandparents generation that had frugality and self reliance forced on them by the Great Depression, we are trying to spend our way out of the mess we created when we borrowed and spent too much in the first place. We are attempting to prop up an outdated economic system, one based on perpetual growth, consumption of ever more resources, and unlimited sprawl.

As Ken points out:

Even though repair backlogs can stretch years or decades into the future, nearly one-third of (stimulus)
money, $6.6 billion, went towards roadway new capacity projects. At a time when public
transportation ridership is hitting all-time highs and the budget crunch is causing transit agencies to cut
routes, service and jobs, an abysmal 0.9% was spent on public transportation. Only 2.8% percent was spent
on non-motorized projects (i.e., bike and pedestrian projects).

And that brings me back to our behavior. We can thrive on producing and consuming less because by doing so there is the potential to unleash previously locked up resources to create whole new business models, local economies, and industries. Economists for the longest time worried about the loss of union jobs in manufacturing because the jobs that replaced those lost usually payed less. William Travis in his book, New Geographies of the American West, cites two University of Montana economists, Thomas Powers and Richard Barret, who found that supporting such "old economy" industries such as manufacturing and resources extraction actually held back the Montana economy from developing faster and better allocating scarce resources of capital and labor. While manufacturing and union jobs have constantly declined since the '70s America is rich not poorer because of it.

Part of the problem is obviously design, as our cities, road networks, and economic connections are all designed to work toward moving vehicles, goods, and money through the system as fast as possible. Thats why the financial collapse happened. All of a sudden when a banks payment of a loan was held up by a second bank's inability to pay the first bank, the whole system came crashing down in a matter of days. Its the same with our cities, if we only connect communities with roads designed for cars, there will be no opportunity for a community to connect through walking and biking and that community will miss out on an opportunity to organize itself and social and economic activities around such activities

By changing behavior, i.e. consuming less, driving less, working less, we don't have to sacrifice our quality of life and can actually improve it while at the same time lessening our impact on the environment. Change can be a scary thing for many people because of the uncertainty that it fosters. But if people are serious about combating climate change and at the same time developing more resilient economies that offer opportunities for the future we have to focus on behavior and not just the technology.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Damn Cold

Winter finally seems to be here. After an extended summer where I got used to riding my bike in 60 degree weather in the middle of Oct./Nov. things have dramatically changed in the last two weeks. For a good article on winter riding, visit this link written by a fellow BWAM member.

Temperatures have been as low as -15 in the last couple of days and that means a change in behavior on my part. Luckily for me there is a bus stop within a block of our place. Of course the bus takes a little longer, about another ten minutes, and requires a transfer in downtown Missoula, but its worth it for the nice, relaxing, and warm commute. I don't have to be all sweaty when I show up to classes and spend an hour coughing and sniffling from the ride in the cold temps.

I was going strong even last week when temperatures in the morning were in the single digits. But my three mile commute makes the cold even more pronounced on my extremities. Even with heavy gloves and boots, my fingers and toes were feeling the brunt of the cold temperatures. The tip of my left index finger even has a spot of frostbite thanks to the 20 mile an hour winds Missoula experienced much of last week.

As soon as temps start to get back to a more normal winter level, I plan on hoping back on my bike and can't wait to try out my mountain bike in the snow... that is if Missoula ever gets any snow this year. I still see plenty of people out there on their bikes, although many of them don't seem to be very smart... wtf is with riding your bike in sub-zero temps without even a hat or gloves? Until then I'm happy to take a warm seat on Missoula's great bus service.
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