Monday, December 14, 2009

Good Ideas from 2009

The New York Times Magazine has just published it's annual Year in Ideas, and some of the 'best ideas' in design have an interesting take on the built environment.

I can attest that The Bicycle Highway is in fact "every cyclists fantasy." And while the reviews acknowledge the US planners' musings about national bicycle corridors, they gush over Copenhagen:
Copenhagen... began last month to create the real thing: a system of as many as 15 extra-wide, segregated bike routes connecting the suburbs to the center of the city. These are not bucolic touring paths; Copenhagen's bike highways are meant to move traffic. Nearly 40 percent of Copenhagen rides a bike to work. On Norrebrogade, a two-mile street in the center of the city, 36,000 cyclists clog the bike lane every day.

The Bicycle Office of Copenhagen's design calls for service stations (with air pumps and tools for simple repairs) and plans to employ so-called intelligent transportation systems — not unlike the technology that makes the E-ZPass possible. Using handlebar-mounted RFID or GPS technology, for example, commuters could detect other riders on the routes, helping them to assemble into pelotons or "bike buses." These groups could in turn emit signals that trip traffic lights in their favor, resulting in a "green wave" of bicycle momentum.
That's awesome. A handlebar mounted I-Pass would look killer on my bike! And a commuter peloton? This should be a "Year in Ideas" feature in its own right. We'll work on that for 2010.

Next up is The Cul-de-Sac Ban:
Virginia, under the leadership of Gov. Tim Kaine, became the first state to severely limit cul-de-sacs from future developments. New rules require that all new subdivisions attain a certain level of "connectivity," with ample through streets connecting them to other neighborhoods and nearby commercial areas.
This is great news for the walkability of future suburbs, but here is my nomination for the best idea for reforming our existing infrastructure:

The folks over a newgeography addressed this issue in an October article. One of the main inefficiencies of the suburbs is that they are typically single use zoning; when residents leave their homes for work in the morning, infrastructure is unused all day until the commute home. Changing zoning regulations to permit mixed uses (home-based offices, light manufacturing, business centers) can help us make better use of our current infrastructure and shorten commutes for many people who prefer suburban life by bringing their offices into their neighborhood. This could even affect the density challenge of suburban mass transit. Check out their solutions in detail at: the residential-business zoning model and the cyber-village.

Bicycle culture is going mainstream and rethinking urban design is becoming a national conversation - fantastic ideas from 2009.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Bike Lanes: now you see them, now you don't.

It's been widely reported that New York City's DOT recently removed 14 blocks of on-street bike lanes on Bedford Ave in Hasidic Williamsburg.

Bike infrastructure was sandblasted off the streets with seemingly little opportunity for public comment or public notice. Some in the cycling community suspect a secret reelection deal between Mayor Bloomsburg and the Hasidic community, some of whom have made their dislike for the bike lanes known from the start. The semi-offical reason for the removal is recent investment in nearby cycling infrastructure.

As Streetsblog reports:
"This is a really heavily used segment of the Brooklyn bike network," said Transportation Alternatives' Wiley Norvell. "Calling it redundant is a bit like saying it's redundant to have sidewalks on the street. It's a necessary part of the transportation system. Cyclists are still going to use Bedford Avenue in large numbers, and they deserve a safe route."
Well, it turns out some cyclists have taken it upon themselves to maintain a safe cycling route. Earlier this week, several people we detained by police while attempting to repaint the bike lanes on Bedford Ave.

On the "brighter" side, some places are actually investing in bike infrastructure to improve safety for cyclists. Copenhagen, bicycling capitol of the world, is not content to rest on its laurels. Rather, they have developed (bike) pressure-activated LED lights that flash in the presence of a cyclist. The flashing LEDs alert drivers attempting to make a right turn across an on-street bicycle lane that cyclists are proceeding through an intersection and the automobile must yield, reducing the risk of the dreaded right-hook. Brilliant.

(LED Bike lane lights in Copenhagen via Copenhagenize)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Examining the data: #CarFreeReps (Part II)

Originally posted at, where I work as a sales representative in the outdoor recreation industry.

In #CarFreeReps (Part I), we explored our motivation for working towards a car-free (or at least a car-lite) future. In a nutshell, it's good for the environment, it's important to our customers, and it might possibly help us pick up cute girls/boys.

But we're a business. If we're going to make a serious commitment to a car-free future it certainly cannot prove to be bad for business or we'll be out on the street. If we're going to convince anyone else to join us, we will have to demonstrate that this can be good for business! Here's a case study:

In early October 2009, Brad (our principle representative) was heading to Chicago to attend a national planning meeting for one of our vendors. Our main office in Madison, Wisconsin isn't too far away and there are a number of travel options: automobile is generally the default, but it isn't unusual for business travelers to fly, intercity bus service is very direct, I have made the trip by bicycle (not the most practical mode, granted!), and we're working on high-speed rail (maybe next time).

Brad decided to give the intercity bus a go. A typical Chicago trip would include visiting accounts across the region, but in this case he was traveling to sit in a conference room for a couple days - there wasn't going to be much need for a car once he arrived. Traveling by plane over such a short distance seemed a bit extravagant. Not to be outdone by my Chicago-Madison cycling adventure, Brad brought his folding bike along for the ride and used it to solve transit's "last mile conundrum," referring to the challenge of mobility between the start/finish of trips and mass-transit hubs. (Think the folding bike is dorky? It could be worse!)

Ready for adventures in Downtown Chicago, outside of Union Station.

The trip was a success, and aside from some gentle ribbing for arriving on this unusual looking contraption, the bike-bus-bike solution went off without a hitch. But how did it compare to the other options: car and plane? Let's examine the data:

Direct Expenses

The direct costs of travel is an obvious first measure, and the roundtrip expenses represented here make a compelling case for intercity bus travel:

Car expenses calculated using GSA personal vehicle reimbursement schedule, 2009:

Furthermore, there are a number of indirect costs not reflected in this chart. Parking at Chicago's Hampton Inn is $25 a day ($75 for the trip). Neither the bus nor the plane consider travel to and from the destination. A taxi from O'Hare Airport to Chicago's Loop is $40, one-way. The bus station was just 1.5 miles from the hotel, so the folding bike proved an economical and enjoyable solution!


Productivity is an important metric to consider. Between wifi hotspots and 3G-enabled devices, the geography of “the office” is changing; with some discipline we are able to work effectively from almost anywhere now. A couple years ago, we'd have to look at this chart and conclude that driving is the best way to get to Chicago; flying and intercity bus just consume too much precious time. However, we can now break out the productive time from each transportation option, and the bus is looking even more attractive:

Travel time assumes neither traffic congestion nor airport delays - generous assumptions in Chicagoland

I've defined productive time as time on-line (3G on the bus) or with the laptop open (on the plane). Seasoned road-warriors may contest the lack of productive time in a car; granted mobile phones can help get some business done on the road, but in my experience these are low-value conversations, immediate follow-up is impossible, and it is increasingly illegal. Further, some time-management experts suggest uninterrupted blocks of time (focused work, such as on an intercity bus) can be far more productive than multitasking in the office.

(Note we could rework our expenses chart to include the lost opportunities from this 'wasted time.' The boss's time is valued at $100/hr - that's his opportunity cost, not salary. This would add about $200 to the cost of traveling by bus and $400 to the cost of plane and automobile travel. The intercity bus is looking even better.)

CO2 Emissions

Barack Obama has pledged to create a carbon market to incorporate some of the costs of climate change into the costs of doing business. Until then, putting a dollar value on this externality is almost impossible, but as a company we have decided that certain goals are worth pursuing. Our business and our passions are in the outdoors, and climate change is an existential threat to the health of ecosystems and of our business. Minimizing our CO2 footprint is a top priority. Air travel, especially short trips, are particularly deleterious. Studies have found intercity bus to be among the least-worst options, and our analysis of this case study supports this:

Uses vehicle emission data from Native Energy (, a carbon offset organization promoted within the Outdoor Industry by Outdoor Retailer and Canoecopia.

(For the record, we are leery of carbon-credit/carbon-trading schemes; purchasing carbon credits in the first-class lounge is akin to buying indulgences from the Catholic Church in 1500. It's better than nothing, but no substitute for meaningful lifestyle changes.)

So in conclusion, for this trip, intercity bus was the right decision - for the environment, for our values, and for our bottom line. Sometime that's not going to be the case, but we need to keep an open mind about taking the bus or train, and keep following the metrics to see when it makes economic sense to hop on the bike or bus. We're also going to keep the conversation going. As we speak, our colleague Bryan is riding from La Crosse, WI to Minneapolis, MN to attend Midwest Mountaineering's Winter Expo; visit him at the Expo or follow his journey on Twitter.

Click through here for a one-page summary of this case study, including the charts. Post it in the break room and start thinking outside the car.

Interested in going car-free? All-aboard!

Three Chicagoland shops, all on the train line. 11/16/09 #carfreereps

Starting the discussion: #CarFreeReps (Part I)

Originally posted at, where I work as a sales representative in the outdoor recreation industry.

As manufacturer representatives in the outdoor industry, one important part of our job is to spend time in our retailers shops: supporting their business, training their staff on the proper use of our equipment, and how to sell it to their customers. As individuals and as a business concerned about the environmental, health, and national security problems caused by our automobile-centric culture, we have taken many steps to reduce our car use in our personal lives.

Most of us bicycle, walk, or carpool to the office - and those of us who work out of our homes have a head start! This is an important step; I am convinced that meaningful changes have to start with small-but-committed changes in routine, and the daily commute is a great place to explore alternative transportation.

However, it is hard not to notice that for us, with our jobs, the daily commute is just the little toe of our carbon footprint; our seasonal roadtrips through the upper Midwest and biannual flights to national tradeshows and national sales meetings are our biggest source of emissions. But these are job requirements, and as a small business trying to maximize efficiency while conserving time and money, perhaps we've done enough?

This short video produced by the Outdoor Alliance (a coalition of groups working for public access to and environmental protection of America's rivers, trails, mountains, and crags) reminds us why we care:

1) We are these climbers, hikers, skiers, and paddlers - I'd like to keep enjoying my snowmelt Western rivers.

2) Our customers are also these people - we sell harnesses, jackets, tents, and boots - it would be great if there is somewhere for our customers to use them.

3) It's an issue of culture. Improving the way we conduct business is part of Pemba Serves' culture. Environmental conservation, including alternative transportation, is increasingly part of our retailers' cultures - it's our job is to support this. Finally, the Outdoor Industry is uniquely positioned to start changing the mainstream culture - if we can't make it here, we're in trouble!

So what does it mean for a rep to go car-free? We have lots of ideas about what it could mean in 5 or 10 years, but here's what it means for us, right now:

1) Our cars are still parked in the driveway. We're not totally car-free, that's just the ideal. Small steps, remember? Many of us are single car households, with partners sharing our car-lite values. When we do need an extra car, car-sharing programs like Madison's Community Car and Chicago's I-GO are always available.

Brad rocks out Milwaukee clinics, car-lite.
Brad rocks out Milwaukee clinics, car-lite.

2) We all live or work within 3 miles of a customer. I just moved to Chicago; I have six accounts within three miles from home. And it is substantially faster to bike to all of them. These are easy. There are an additional 10 accounts within 25 miles. This trip is longer by bike, and not all are on bike-friendly routes, but most are on 'L' or Metra train lines.

One of many Chicago shops within biking distance for Pete.
One of many Chicago shops within biking distance for Pete.

3) We've been able to make a couple of bigger trips this year on intercity bus and Amtrak. When we're traveling longer distances to attend a meeting or support a specific event, we don't need a car once we're there. Intercity bus and train turn out to have many advantages; we'll explore some of the data in Part II.

Brads intercity, car-free. Bus+Bike
Brad's intercity, car-free. Bus+Bike

4) Getting out of the car isn't just about saving the environment... I'm sure every sales rep, retail employee, and manufacturer sales manager in the outdoor industry has has this conversation with a cute boy/girl at a party:
CUTE GIRL: "So tell me, what do you do for a living?"

ME: "Oh, I'm a sales rep/salesperson/etc in the outdoor recreation industry. We sell mountaineering, skiing, kayaking, and camping equipment."

CUTE GIRL: "Wow, that is so cool! You must get to go on some amazing trips! You know, for 'product testing' and stuff? Tell me about your last adventure!"

ME: "Well, umm... there was this trip to Utah a couple months ago, but it's not what you think..."

For me, creating space in my work life to get outside and use our gear - even if just to ride across town in Gore-Tex waterproof goodness - makes me better at my job and feel better about my life. And most of all, I have a better response for the cute girl at the party:
ME: "Remember that record snow storm last winter? Well, I had this really important meeting on the other side of town, and all of the bridges were closed, and ...."
Pete skis to work, 3/08.
Pete skis to work, post-snowstorm 3/08.

Join the conversation on Twitter, just tag your posts with the hashtag: #carfreereps. And check in next week for Part II where we'll examine some of the other benefits of going car-free or car-lite. We are a business after all; we'll be talking time and money.

Until then, ride on.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Illinois gets $13 million for Safe Routes to School

The Associated Press reports that $13.1 million in federal funding has been secured for statewide Safe Routes to School initiatives. Gov. Pat Quinn says the SRTS program "reaches out to youth, instilling in them the healthy habits of physical activity." The money will be used in communities across the state to improve sidewalks, for outreach, and police training.

Investing in the health of our children while we make our streets safer? Sounds like a pretty good use of stimulus money: healthcare, education, infrastructure.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Crashes Are Not Accidents

The Ghost Bikes movement endeavors to remind us that crashes are not accidents. Accidents are by definition unintentional, and we think of them as being unpredictable and thus unavoidable. As Tom Vanderbilt points out in his book (which I'm currently reading), "Traffic: Why we drive the way we do (and what it says about us)," do accidents really just happen, or are there steps we can take to avoid them, or at least minimize their likelihood? If so, this suggests that accidents are neither wholly unpredictable nor unavoidable.

Having just moved to Chicago (and with a budding interest in transportation planning), I'm fascinated by traffic here. As a cyclist, I find it intriguing that automobile commuters are willing to sit so long in rush-hour traffic.

In Chicago, as in most places, there is a bias against bicycles as legitimate means of transportation. Chicago is far better than I anticipated, but these two articles from today's news hint at an institutionalized bias:

Bicyclist Hurt in Hit-and-Run Accident

Police are looking for the driver and vehicle involved in a hit-and-run crash which severely injured a west suburban man as he rode a bicycle Sunday night.

Officers found that the 52-year-old man had been on a bicycle when he suffered serious injuries to his legs and head after being struck by a car, according to a release from police.

Traffic investigators responded to the scene and recovered some evidence, but as of noon Monday, the car and driver had not been identified. Anyone who witnessed the accident or has information that will assist in locating the offender, is asked to call police at (630) 801-6610 or Aurora Area Crime Stoppers at (630) 892-1000.

Father, son hurt in Brown County park bike crash

NASHVILLE, Ind. - Authorities say a 15-year-old boy and his father suffered extensive injuries when they crashed down a steep hill while bicycling at Brown County State Park.

Forty-four-year-old Edward Brizendine and his son Ely were taken by helicopter to Methodist Hospital after the accident Sunday afternoon.

State conservation officers say the two were at the park near Nashville with several other members of the Mooresville High School cross county team as part of a weekend training outing.

Conservation Officer Jeff Atwood says the hill where the two crashed is marked with signs urging bike riders to dismount before going down.

The headlines suggest that the driver who struck a cyclist, resulting in serious injuries and hospitalization, and who then fled the scene, had an accident.

The cyclists in the second story apparently failed to heed the posted warnings of a steep and dangerous slope. They, too, were hospitalized as a result of their crash.

Accidents and crashes may both be employed to refer to the same incident, but they carry presumptions of culpability and evitability.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Safe Routes to School? Biking to school results in reprimand.

The Saratogian reports that in Saratoga Springs, NY, a mother and her son were reprimanded by school officials for biking to school in observance of national "Bike to Work Day."

Janette Kaddo Marino and her son, Adam, 12, wanted to participate in the commuting event, so the two set off to Maple Avenue Middle School on bicycles May 15. The two pedaled the 7 miles from their east side home, riding along a path that extends north from North Broadway straight onto school property.

After they arrived, mother and son were approached first by school security and then school administrators, who informed Marino that students are not permitted to ride their bikes to school.

The policy, according to the principal, stems from traffic safety concerns and an attempted child abduction in the district several years ago. From the comments, it sounds as if the traffic in the area presents legitimate challenges to developing a safe route to school for all students, but banning a student from riding with a parent infringes on parents' rights and transportation choices, and the article suggests there is at least one bicycle/pedestrian path crossing school grounds.

As the author and commentators note, automobile-dependency contributes to other very real safety concerns for children, including childhood obesity. These policies reinforce the perception that unsupervised children are at risk from predators and our streets are unsafe for alternative transportation. Moreover, such policies seek only to address the symptoms of these concerns. Creating livable cities - with real neighbors to keep the community safe - can provide a level of supervision that permits children to explore with minimal risk. Removing people from the streets does not make the streets safer; rather we should be discouraging automobile use, enforcing traffic laws, and educating drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians of their rights and responsibilities on the road.

And as for this active mother in Saratoga? "School officials took her son’s bike and stored it in the boiler room. They told her she would have to return with a car to retrieve the bike later in the day." We have a lot of work to do.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

No Child Left Inside

Sticking out of a pile of dead branches at Glenwood Children's Park is a hand-lettered sign: "These materials may be used in the park for forts and other structures."

Madison, Wisconsin's Capital Times explores the movement started in part by Richard Louv's award-winning book: "Last Child in the Woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder."

Free play in nature is a vanishing pastime, even in nature-friendly Madison, says Sam Dennis, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dennis, a father of three who's involved with several local and university-led initiatives to get kids outdoors, pays attention to the ways children interact with their environment. And, like many educators, parents and health professionals, he doesn't like what he's hearing, reading and seeing.

"Nationally, we're finding that most kids spend their free time indoors. And when they are outside, very often they are tied up in some structured activity," Dennis says. "Madison is full of little parks and open spaces where kids could pile rocks, play with sticks, get muddy. Where are the kids? How do we connect them with these spaces where they can enjoy free-range play?"

Childhood obesity and diabetes, climate change, and dependence on foreign oil - these are all significant challenges. Giving our children opportunities for active, unstructured play where they can interact with nature (both in the urban landscape or out in county parks), become environmental stewards, and carve out a niche in the city for people can only help.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

New Urbanism

Winner of The Congress for New Urbanism CNU 17 video contest. This short film explores the connection between New Urbanism and environmental issues. Created by independent filmmaker John Paget ( with First+Main Media (Drew Ward, Chris Elisara and John Paget).

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Visions of Wilderness in US National Forests

New York Times, Letters to the Editor, May 13, 2009: "America's Forests, With Roads and Without"

To the Editor:

I second your call for President Obama to take all steps within his power to protect roadless areas in our national forests, including a push for permanent protection by Congress (“Who Will Protect the Forests?,” editorial, May 7).

Over two-thirds of America’s national forests have been ravaged by taxpayer-subsidized logging roads and industrial exploitation. The roadless areas we have left include such irreplaceable old growth as the heart of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, where cathedral spruce and hemlock groves harbor grizzly bears and other wilderness-dependent creatures. Tongass roadless areas deserve full protection.

Roadless forests provide multiple benefits, serving as drinking water sources and habitat, sequestering carbon dioxide and providing recreation. But in some larger sense, the fate of America’s last wild forests is a measure of our respect for America’s wilderness legacy and our concern for those who follow us.

David A. Scott
Columbus, Ohio, May 7, 2009

The writer is a member-elect of the board of directors of the Sierra Club.

To the Editor:

The national forests are not national parks. The Forest Service was put under the auspices of the Agriculture Department because forests are considered a crop in this country — a renewable resource.

You advocate the Clinton administration’s roadless rule as a means to protect the forests. To the contrary, roads are essential to give access to managers to maintain forest health and to allow for recreational uses. We have learned that letting the forest floor become packed with woody detritus and overgrowth has led to catastrophic fires. Yet you would stop managers from getting equipment into the forests.

In the Allegheny National Forest in my district, almost all of the subsurface mineral rights belong to private property owners. Roads are necessary for the owners to access their property.

What is it about those in the environmental community that makes them believe that only stalwart backpackers should be allowed to enjoy the beauty of national forests?

Glenn Thompson
Member of Congress, 5th Dist., Pa.
Washington, May 7, 2009

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Ironic Nature Walk

The New York Times explores unconventional understandings of nature expressed in the Newtown Creek Nature Walk, located in the "industrial wilderness" of northern Brooklyn:
The nature walk occupies an unsavory wedge of land, stuck as it is between a sewage treatment facility and the infamous creek that separates Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and Long Island City, Queens, where decades ago more than 17 million gallons of oil seeped in from underground tanks. Yet, this contradictory nature walk, with its bleak concrete paths, holds truth for our confounding times.

When we think of nature, we imagine ourselves alone, surrounded by untouched beauty, connecting with our collective memories of the world as it was at the dawn of humanity. But “nature” is also defined as a characteristic or state of things, and this alternate meaning carries its own weight.
The Newtown Creek Alliance was formed in 2002 to advocate for the rehabilitation of Newtown Creek, cleaning up the habitat and building it into a center for community space.

The City Concealed: Newtown Creek from on Vimeo.

Following up on the recent ecocities post, we need to start recognizing the value of these marginal landscapes. In large, dense cities, we feel pressed to find new space for recreation and for habitat restoration. Newtown Creek demonstrates (1) that these places exist in our cities, often hidden in the "industrial wilderness," (2) this marginal space can be rehabilitated, and (3) there is a public desire for this type of natural-civic space.

Ecocities: Cities Can Save the Earth

Could it be that the root causes of our environmental crises are linked to the biggest things we build - cities?

So argues Richard Register, founder of SF Bay Area's Urban Ecology, author of Ecocities: Building Cities in Balance with Nature, and activist urban planner, writing in a recent Foreign Policy in Focus brief. Our automobile dependence has many direct ecological and social costs, but the most insidious consequence is how cars have reshaped our cities over the last 100 years. Register writes: "Many of us caught in this infrastructure find it extremely difficult to get around in anything but the car. The distances are just too great for bicycles, the densities just too low to allow efficient, affordable transit."

The challenges are significant, but Register has reason for optimism:

We can change our cities. In fact, our cities have already changed. Portland has frequent transit that’s free in the downtown area, and has designated a “urban growth boundary” to limit the expansion of the city’s urban area and preserve nearby farmland and other open spaces and a thriving and very dense new residential and “mixed-use” center in the Pearl District. The rooftops in Tel Aviv, Israel and dozens of Chinese cities sparkle with solar hot-water panels. Copenhagen’s pedestrian street, the St√łget, has been growing steadily since 1962 and now stretches more than two miles.

But we can do more, much more, to redesign our cities for pedestrians and bicyclists, taking up very small areas of land in more compact development. Taller buildings with rooftop gardens and solar greenhouses can be linked by pedestrian connections between rooftops and terraces above ground level, making city centers intimately accessible to people on foot. As we add population and ecological architecture in pedestrian/transit centers, we can gradually eliminate the unsustainable suburbs.

We'll need to start rebuilding our cities to incorporate Register's ecocity concepts - pedestrian/transit-oriented infrastructure, replacing sprawl development with nature/agriculture, and integrating renewable energy systems - if we are to meet the triple threat of climate change, biodiversity loss, and dwindling (cheap) fossil fuels. Rethinking our cities as places that both humans and non-human nature can call home is a place to start; cities that are friendly for pedestrians and cyclists are likely to welcome trees, restored streams, and urban wildlife as well.

Read the whole article at Foreign Policy in Focus, and learn more about the ecocity at Ecocity Builders.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Friday, April 10, 2009

Guerrilla Bike Lanes

Case of upside-down chalk paint: $40
Handy paint-in-a-straight-line-roller thingy: $15
Making your own bike lane: Priceless
ash...housewares comments on a recent post about a disappearing bike lane in Portland.

Interested in making your own guerrilla bike lane? The Toronto Star tells us how:

It was all carefully planned in advance. A few members came to the area the night before to scout out the neighbourhood and test the line painter in a back alley. It would take roughly 30 minutes to paint stencils every 50 feet down the stretch of road, they realized.

They began their work at 3:15 p.m. with cars still parked along the curb. The group has to wait for rush hour, because that's the only time cars can't park where the bike lane would be.

"Cars are a good cover when we do the stencilling," says one of two female members in the group.

"Perfect," one says, as they notice a red Honda parked only feet away from a large Chevy. With lookouts at the ready, the pair crouch between the two bumpers. One holds down a large cardboard stencil, while the other traces the image with paint.

Once the diamonds and bike logos are done, the woman puts on an orange emergency-worker vest and walks straight into oncoming traffic. As she signals for cars to pass into the centre lane, another walks behind her, using a line painter.

Commuters instinctively take their positions, and bikes head right for the new lane, as drivers dutifully merge left.

"Are we finally getting a bike lane?" asked a passerby heading into a corner store.

"Yes ma'am," one of the Repair Squad replies.

"How exciting!"

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Traffic "Planning"?

Not sure if this is a reason to wholeheartedly pursue my interest in urban and traffic planning (to save the world from traffic planners), or to head for the hills (that is, unincorporated villages with unimproved roads).

Read the whole (hilarious) post at The Ten Most...

Monday, April 6, 2009

MKE-MSN high-speed rail to end at Madison airport?

We're looking forward to high-speed rail lines connecting Midwest cities, and the Milwaukee-Madison corridor is the next step in the master plan linking: Chicago to Milwaukee (existing line) to Madison (planned) to the Twin Cities (proposed).

However, this article generated some buzz from potential Madison & Milwaukee riders who aren't too excited about the line terminating at the Madison-Dane County airport, far from downtown, the University, and most tourist attractions and business destinations.

The planners are concerned that sending the line through Madison's crowded Isthmus will cause increased traffic downtown and unacceptable delays for passengers continuing past Madison on the proposed route.

Madison is considering a light-rail system bisecting the city, but the preferred plan connects to the eastern suburb of Sun Prairie, not the airport.

It seems like if we are going to invest in the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, Madison ought to ensure there is light-rail service from wherever the station is sited.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Living with Wildlife?

It's not always that easy.

The BBC reports this week from Sumatra on "The hunt for Sumatra's killer tigers." They write human deaths are on the rise as habitat destruction and diminished prey populations push tigers into greater contact with people, while local residents are driven into the forest for fuel wood and commercial logging to feed their families. In Jambi province, the conflict is extremely serious; tigers are killing one person each week. Wildlife managers, tasked with protecting the forests and wildlife from human incursions, are now tracking and catching the tigers to protect the illegal loggers.

I've worked in Kenya, where human deaths are far less frequent, but the consequences of human-wildlife conflict are almost as severe. Similar ecological and economic pressures push people and wildlife into uncomfortably close contact. Daily crop-raiding by baboons and porcupines undermine the viability of subsistence farms, and the occasional raid by a family of elephants can destroy an entire season's crop overnight. Efforts to save the crops from elephants can result in human injury and death, but so does losing a whole harvest.

(Agriculture and villages at the bottom, jungle at the top. Not so much wiggle room in between.)

International conservationists and wildlife advocates worldwide decry human encroachment into wildlife habitat and fail to understand the resentment toward wildlife expressed by people living nearby. (Who wouldn't want to have a safari park right next door?) It is hard to understand because we romanticize the noble lion, majestic elephant, and intelligent chimpanzee, so let's bring it a little closer to home:

"Cops kill cougar on [Chicago's] North Side: Neighborhood stunned as animal cornered, shot in back alley" (Chicago Tribune)

"Coyotes settling in on [Madison, WI's] west side; death of two dogs prompts meeting" (Wisconsin State Journal)

We have ideas about where wildlife belong, and where people belong. Wildlife belong in the plains of Africa and forests of SE Asia... and in remote mountains and national parks in North America. People belong in North America, but should stay out of the wildlife areas in Africa and SE Asia. We forget that people and wildlife have coexisted in all of these places for a very long time; it has never been a particularly happy coexistence, but neither people nor wildlife have an exclusive claim.

Conservationists now recognize that even the largest protected areas are too small for wildlife populations to persist - without connections between reserves, populations are threatened with diminished genetic diversity and will have difficultly adapting to climatic changes. Practicing conservation outside of parks, in the human-dominated landscape, will be challenging, but if we're going to succeed in balancing the needs of wildlife with the needs of people, we need to have a deep appreciation for the compromises being made on both sides of the fence. Wildlife and habitats deserve a measure of protection as part of our biological and cultural heritage, in addition for the ecosystem services and economic value of biodiversity. However, local residents in Kenya and Sumatra cannot be expected to bear the full cost of living with wildlife, especially when the developed world refuses to tolerate significantly less risk in our backyards.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

I-5 Colonnade

This is cool stuff. The I-5 Colonnade is a City of Seattle Park, built under the I-5 overpass, and claims the title of the "first ever urban mountain bike skills park." (Evergreen MTB Alliance)

"We have this outdoor ethic, but we live in a city. Let's combine the two. Let's have our outdoors, mountain-based recreation, but let's have a version of it in town here so we can do it after work or during lunch... and we can hit the backcountry on the weekends."

This is what urban wilderness is all about. There are opportunities for outdoor recreation in our cities - including wilderness-based recreation. Promoting projects like Colonnade will help make cities more livable and residents more active. It connects people with their local environment and fundamentally alters how we see the urban landscape.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Suburban Bison, by James Tate

Suburban Bison

by James Tate

Joshua and I had decided to go bowling.
Neither of us had bowled in years, and we didn't
really like to bowl, so it made no sense. We
were driving down Route 9 when we spotted the
buffalo herd. They were grazing in the snow,
and something about their improbable heads made
me catch my breath. I pulled over to the side
of the road. "Why are they here?" Joshua asked.
"I guess it's some kind of cruel joke," I said.
"Well, it's not funny," he said. "They're way
too majestic. Buffalo are supposed to roam,
that's what the song says, not be penned up
along some strip for tourists to see," he
said. "It beats bowling," I said. And so we
sat there for the next hour contemplating the
life of the postmodern buffalo, deconstructing
their owners, and never putting them back
together again.

"Suburban Bison" by James Tate from Return to the City of White Donkeys. © Ecco Press, 2004; via The Writer's Almanac from March 11, 2009.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

NYT: Taking the Slum Out of 'Slumdog'

Many of the scenes from the blockbuster "Slumdog Millionaire" were shot in the outskirts of Mumbai, in Dharavi. But NYT OP-ED contributors suggest that the images from the movie do not portray the truth about Dharavi:

Dharavi is all about such resourcefulness. Over 60 years ago, it started off as a small village in the marshlands and grew, with no government support, to become a million-dollar economic miracle providing food to Mumbai and exporting crafts and manufactured goods to places as far away as Sweden.

No master plan, urban design, zoning ordinance, construction law or expert knowledge can claim any stake in the prosperity of Dharavi. It was built entirely by successive waves of immigrants fleeing rural poverty, political oppression and natural disasters. They have created a place that is far from perfect but has proved to be amazingly resilient and able to upgrade itself. In the words of Bhau Korde, a social worker who lives there, “Dharavi is an economic success story that the world must pay attention to during these times of global depression."

The authors of this article are researchers with PUKAR - Partners for urban knowledge, action & research, based in Mumbai. PUKAR seeks to "generate new urban knowledge by encouraging maximum participation of Mumbai’s citizens in this process" through such initiatives as youth knowledge production (democratizing research to engage youth in learning) and neighbourhood projects (encouraging citizens to write their own ethnographies, narrating their own histories).

Slums in Mumbai and around the world certainly contain poverty, suffering, and desperation, but the people who live in these places are not just victims. Rather they are actors in the world, and sometimes from desperation can come resourcefulness and innovation from which we could all learn. Perhaps this is a theme of the movie that does ring true.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Follow UrbanWilderness on Twitter

You might have noticed the Twitter feed on the sidebar is updated about twice as often as the blog; Twitter is a micro-blogging ideal for short posts sharing news and other content. Keep checking for the latest Urban Wilderness news, or follow the updates directly through Twitter here. Thanks for reading!

The housing development that kids built

How do we make cities, neighborhoods, and housing developments more livable? Well, start with asking the inhabitants. And who spends more time living, exploring, and being active in the physical space than children?

A construction cooperative in a northern Italian town decided to explore this idea the early 1990's. They wanted to create space for inhabitants, rather than making habitations, and wanted real participation in the project with an actual sense of community as the goal. Architects and engineers worked with nursery school children on building models, drawing, and discussing what they would want in an ideal house.

Completed a couple of years ago, the Coriandoline housing development has 20 homes organized around a center plaza. Each building has a theme, including the "castle-house" and the house with "the-roof-held-up-by-trees." Features such as kid-height windows beneath the regular window sills and space for playing built in the communal landscape helps make Coriandoline livable for residents of all sizes. Garages are buried in mounds and hills with play areas above and monster-like murals on the garage-cave opening. Read more about Coriandoline, and listen to a podcast from Radio Netherlands Worldwide.

(Photo courtesy of Radio Netherlands Worldwide)

As a society we continue to underestimate the role of the built environment in defining our behavior and lifestyles. Many of the great failures of our suburban communities to sustain healthy livestyles and livable communities stem from honest, well-intentioned efforts to plan responsibly. Maybe we need to throw out the old manuals and let the kids have a go at it...

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Sunday, January 11, 2009

On bikes and transportation alternatives

We all need a reminder from time to time that people bicycle for many different reasons. Some bike for fitness and racing, others commute by choice, and still others bicycle commute by necessity. Some of us can decide when and where we will ride, but not everyone has an option.

A New York Times editorial discusses bicycles in the suburbs, on the highways along Strip-Mall-America, pedaled by immigrant workers relegated to the margins.
Such sights are evidence of a valiant adaptation to a hostile environment. For immigrant workers, as with so many of us in the suburbs, life boils down to the job, the bed and the travel between. But when you live in a landscape designed for cars, and you are poor, and it is too far to walk to work, and there’s no bus to take you there, the only option is two wheels. This is what is cheap and effective. It can also be deadly.
This is not a safe place to ride. Drivers (frustrated with suburban transportation in their own right) have little compassion for bicyclists here. The editorial discusses several recent bicyclists' deaths around NYC where the drivers kept going after the collision. "Transportation alternatives" usually means alternatives to cars, but many people lack alternatives other than bikes. Let's keep this constituency in mind when building bike infrastructure and planning our overall transportation grid. And especially when we're behind the wheel; slow down a bit and give the guy on the old mountain bike a wide berth.