Active Commuting – VT takes a day to focus on the benefits

On Wednesday, September 21, RIDE Solutions participated in Virginia Tech’s Active Commute Celebration. The event included 13 groups and organizations on campus and in the larger community that are promoting sustainable ways to actively commute – i.e., bike, bus and walk – and offering ways to change your perspective on when and where you can leave your car behind.

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Celebrate Clean Commuting in Blacksburg

We’ll be celebrating in Blacksburg on May 20 to thank those who have taken the clean commute pledge. Stop by, say hello, and enjoy a cup of coffee and a pastry.

Clean Commute participants pledge to use a cleaner commute mode – biking, walking, riding the bus, carpooling – during May. Each trip pledged is an entry for the prize drawings. There’s a Commute Team of the Year competition open to any group (workplace, clubs, informal groups), too.

You can still join the Clean Commute Challenge!

NRV’s 2011 Regional Bikeway, Walkway, Blueway Plan is online!

The New River Valley Planning District Commission has created a web page for the Draft 2011 Bikeway, Walkway, Blueway Plan.  Take a few minutes to visit the site: http://www.nrvpdc.org/Transportation/bwwwbw.html.

Things that you can currently do include:

  1. Review the 2011 Draft Plan by chapter or as a whole
  2. Review each Area’s Plan: hotlinks provided across the bottom for the Floyd Area, Giles Area, Montgomery Area, Pulaski Area, and the Radford Area.
  3. Visit the Interactive Map: hotlink provided on the lower left edge; explore existing facilities and access points for different facilities in the NRV.
  4. Provide comments on the materials or site
  5. Revisit the 2000 Plan

Things to come include: local endorsements of the plan and helpful resources for planning and design.  This is a work-in-progress, so any feedback that you have will be very valuable to help make improvements.

The important thing to remember is that the plan is still under review by local governments (most are still receiving hard copies).  Because of this, the Hierarchical priorities may change based on additional review.  Also, the Regional section is not complete.  They are asking for input on how to define specific regional projects or criteria that could be used to support regional efforts.

Try Walking to School

Via the Blue Ridge Caucus Blog:

Gov. Bob McDonnell has vetoed legislation that would require elementary and middle schools to provide 150 minutes of physical education per week, calling it an unfunded mandate on localities.

There is undoubtedly an epidemic of childhood obesity facing the country.  The CDC reports that obesity rates among preschoolers doubled to 10% over the last 20 years, and to 20% for 6 to 11 year olds.  The thinking behind the PE bill was sound, then – clearly, the kids need the exercise.  The objection from teachers and school districts was also justified – school systems don’t need more unfunded mandates.

If my experience walking my daughter to school every morning is any indication, though, there’s a really easy way for a lot more kids to get close to that 30 minutes of exercise a day – walk or bike to school.  It’s not an option for everyone, I know, but I’m pretty confident that some percentage of the kids stepping from their parents’ vehicles every morning live well within walking distance of the school.  Not only would that walk be a healthier option for them, it would make Mom and Dad’s work commute a little easier and keep all those cars from lining up and idling alongside the sidewalk where the rest of the kids travel each morning.

If your child is tending towards obesity, thinking about integrating more walking and cycling into their daily regimen is a good idea, even if it’s as simple and dropping them off a few blocks shy of the school.  Not only do they get some additional exercise, but you get to avoid the congestion around the loading zone and get to zip off to work a bit more quickly.

And in case you’re concerned that your kid can’t walk or bike to school, consider the example of then-sixth grader Jamie Taliaferro, the winner of the 2010 Bike Hero award.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vnIHIG5ADbQ]

An Ode to a Good Walk

Laura Clawson at the DailyKos has an interesting diary on the virtues of walking.  It’s good, and a lot of the material she links to is also good as a review of the challenges of making walkable communities.

One of the points she makes is of walking as a cultural rather than structural issue (structural here meaning the presence of sidewalks, crosswalks, and other pedestrian amenities).  She relates the following:

But nothing illustrated how far outside the norm attempting to walk someplace was in that culture like the first time I tried to walk anywhere the summer I lived on the country road. There was a gas station half a mile away and enough grass at the edge of the road that I didn’t think I’d get run over, so I set out. Halfway there, I was stopped by the police, who ran my license. The ostensible reason I was stopped was that there had been a break-in reported about a mile away just minutes before. But there was no way I could have been at the break-in and where I was on foot; really, I was stopped because I was doing something suspicious simply by walking along the road.

I had a similar experience upon moving here from California.  Where I lived in El Cajon, I had – for years – walked and ridden my bike the two or so miles to my junior high.  In fact, I had never ridden a bus to school or had been driven to school in my life.  When I moved here and  ended up at Cave Spring High School, about the same distance from home to school as where I grew up, everyone rode the bus or was driven by their parents (or drove themselves).  Even though I wasn’t really environmentally aware at the time, and didn’t see walking vs. driving as an environmental issue, it still seemed very strange to me that no one was walking that relatively short distance, a distance I had walked my entire life.   There were many mornings when I missed the bus on purpose just so I’d have an excuse to have to walk, and recapture some of that experience of moving under my own power.

For doing that, I got a lot of strange looks.  Often, I would arrive at school before or at the same time my bus did, even when I hoofed it, and as it drove by some of my classmates would stare, perplexed.  Besides this cultural issues, there were – and are – structural issues:  no sidewalks between home and school, and little consideration for pedestrians along Electric Road and Chapparal (point of note – Electric Road may be due for a renaissance according to recent planning work the Commission completed).

That said, things have improved a lot, I think; at least, many of the cultural issues to walking (and other alternative modes) seems to have waned a bit if the structural issues haven’t.   Of course, I’m surrounded with this stuff everyday and might be suffering a bit of an echo-chamber effect.  I’d be interested if some of those cultural objections to walking, biking, and bus riding are still in full effect.

Good Transportation Makes Good Neighborhooods

Last week, I had a brief conversation with Eldon Karr, a local architect who has involved in Roanoke’s Design ’79 plan (link goes to 1.26 MB pdf) and currently runs the Heart of Roanoke Facebook group and collaborative urban design experiment.  The conversation started with the Heart of Roanoke and Karr’s goal to create a design process, beginning with Downtown Roanoke, that could be applied to other neighborhoods in the valley.  Since I have recently written on Downtown and its importance in the broader transportation picture in the region, his idea about a design process that moved from neighborhood to neighborhood got me thinking about the ways that our neighborhoods are connected, and specifically how transit changes the way we experience the city.

Much of this stems from my experience working on the National Transit Database passenger count survey a few years ago, a tri-annual process that involves counting passengers on random routes at random times throughout the day for an entire year, collecting data that powers much of the Federal Transit Administration’s analysis.  The past several iterations, collecting data for this project has been a joint effort between Regional Commission and Valley Metro staff.  Since route and time selection is random, you’re pretty much assured that you’ll run every route and every time of the day over the course of the year.

For me, the result was more than simply becoming better acquainted with the bus schedule; it was an introduction to parts of Roanoke that I had never known existed, and the idea that there are social implications of the decisions we make about transportation.

In a community the size of Roanoke, it’s hard to believe that someone who has lived here almost 20 years wouldn’t have visited almost every nook and cranny of the valley.  But is it really?  If the way you get around is always Point A to Point B via the shortest possible distance, generally in a car by yourself with the radio on, and paying the required attention to the simple act of driving, it shouldn’t be surprising that you would mostly hold to the same several paths each day – work, store, friend’s house – and not experience much more unless a new home or job forces you to reconsider your routes.  Even then, you’re probably not paying much attention to what’s going on around you beyond watching traffic.

Riding the bus for this passenger survey provided two surprising opportunities:  It still got me from A to B, but through neighborhoods and streets I had not visited before, giving me a sense of a Roanoke that I didn’t know existed.  It also gave me time to breathe and just pay more attention to what was going on around me – houses I had never much noticed on paths I had taken every day, a decaying strip mall with the potential for a village center, hidden parks tucked into strange places, and, unfortunately, pockets of surprising poverty.  It gave me a sense of who my neighbors were and how our neighborhoods were connected (or disconnected, as the case may be), and a broader view of the challenges that face the region.

The conversation I had with Karr – beginning with this experience – touched on what a more robust transit system, starting with investment and support by downtown businesses and local government, and including the expansion of the network into Roanoke County and beyond, could mean for how people experienced Roanoke and how the neighborhoods might fit together; not as separate fiefdoms demarcated by four-lane roads and controlled through clever access management, but as connected communities whose residents share conversations and experiences (or at least exposure to each other if, like me, you prefer to read a book on your bus time).  Your perspective on city projects might be different; for example, your sense of where an amphitheater belongs (or if one belongs at all) might be different if you crossed three or four neighborhoods a day.  Maybe it would reinforce the conclusion at which you’d already arrived, maybe it would change it; either way, it would be a more informed decision.

OK, I admit that this all sounds a little sentimental.  And I’ll offer the hedge that this is my own experience; 180,000 people are all going to experience the valley in different ways and crisscross it in places I probably still haven’t seen (for example, I didn’t know until yesterday that there is a Christmas tree farm within the city limits).  The point is to consider the secondary, perhaps obscure (but nonetheless important)  impacts of transportation decisions, to think about how people share space in their city and how often they interact with their neighbors and fellow citizens, whether that interaction is desirable, and what the barriers are.  Riding the bus isn’t going to fix that – nor is putting down a sidewalk where none exists so people feel safe walking, or riding a bike to the store so it’s easy to stop and talk to your neighbors – but it certainly seems to be part of the puzzle.

Now, before anyone accuses me of trying to force everyone out of their cars and onto buses so we can all be warm and fuzzy together, all of this is not to say that public transit doesn’t have its faults.  Trips are longer, occasionally fraught with uncertain delays, and often confusing route maps and schedules.  But like anything we talk about at RIDE Solutions, the point is to look at our transportation network and transportation behavior from a trip-by-trip basis.  A commute trip is a pretty good one to make by bus, a shopping trip may not be.  Different trips can be more effectively taken by different modes, and it’s worth thinking that we should add social benefits to the standard list of financial and environmental benefits we think of when we take a car off the road.

It Boggles the Mind: Why is CEI Against Transportation Choice?

This Competitive Enterprise Institute post on World Carfree Day and the effort to encourage a less car-centric society has to be willfully stupid.  That’s the only way to explain the conclusions they draw.  Fortunately, Andrew Leonard at Salon.com has already offered a rebuttal of their claims (though it should be noted that the rebuttal is leveled against an email alert by CEI, the text of which is similar to, but not a direct quote from, the post linked to above).  Leonard’s conclusion nails it:

CEI complains that World Car-Free Day is “anti-prosperity.” If their idea of prosperity is living in the suburbs where you have to drive miles to get to the nearest McDonald’s, I guess they are right. But World Car-Free Day really is “pro-good life.” A life in which we use our bodies instead of burning fossil fuels, reside in livable neighborhoods instead of sterile deserts of tract housing, and enjoy the wind on our face instead of the hum of the air conditioner.

What boggles my mind about complaints like those of CEI is that is misses the point on two very broad levels:  First, they argue that automobiles provide mobility and that people would be “isolated” without them.  Well, yes, but in many cases only because our development patterns have assumed the use of an automobile as a primary means of transport, resulting in sprawl.  It’s a bit disingenuous to complain that grandma couldn’t get to the doctor without a car, when there’s a pretty good chance grandma can’t drive at all.  Since there’s probably no doctor near where she lives and no to little investment in public transportation, she’s been left completely stranded even if she owned a car.  CEI limits their definition of mobility to driving an automobile, forgetting that investments in transit, rail, safe bicycle and pedestrian facilities, and even high-speed data infrastructure to encourage telecommuting also equal mobility.  The policies they argue would “make owning one’s own car more difficult and expensive” aren’t necessarily there to penalize car owners, but to encourage development patterns and fund transportation networks that are equitable to all users – including the elderly, handicapped, rural residents, and other audiences they identify for whom driving a car doesn’t necessarily make sense, either.

Second:  Besides their narrow-minded approach to mobility, the big point CEI misses is that of energy.  Automobile-centric mobility arguments and automobile-centric development patterns only make sense in a world of cheap energy with few external impacts of its use, a world we clearly don’t live in anymore.  Ask anyone who was driving back and forth between Roanoke and Blacksburg in 2008 if $4/gallon gas contributed to their prosperity.   It’s not just the energy involved in moving the automobile back and forth I’m talking about, though; there’s energy involved in building and maintaining the roads upon which the vehicles drive, in supporting the infrastructure that connects commuters’ homes and destinations (power/sewer/etc. – miles of water line to connect a neighborhood to a mall is much more energy intensive than a few blocks to integrate a neighborhood village center).  There’s the energy involved in mitigating externalities – pollution, smog, traffic control, emergency services, and so forth.  And, finally, there’s the human energy expended in stress and time dealing with long commutes, road rage, sedentary lifestyles that see us sitting down, unmoving, even when we’re traveling at 55 miles an hour.  In a world of limitless, clean, free energy, CEI’s perspective might have some value, but unfortunately for them such a world doesn’t, and probably will never, exist.

World Carfree Day, Clean Commute Day, Ciclovia, Bike to Work Day – all these events are efforts to get people past thinking that there is only one way to get from A to B, that only one kind of vehicle makes sense.  Sure, in many cases, there is absolutely nothing wrong with driving a car, and the automobile’s ability to get people over long distances quickly has done much for connecting far-flung communities and moving goods around in a way that has increased everybody’s quality of life.   But for individual transportation choices on a trip-by-trip basis, sometimes it simply doesn’t make any sense to get in your car.

Even if you aren’t carfree today, at least take a moment to think about a trip that could be taken carfree.  Think about how your day might be different if you took the bus on Fridays instead of driving and could read a book or just relax knowing you were significantly safer than if driving in your car.  Think about how your family life might be different if you lived close enough to walk your kid to school in the morning.  Think about picking up your groceries in a trailer on your bicycle and what that weekly ride might do for your health.  Maybe none of these options are realistic for you, and that’s fine.  But if you imagined just one of these possibilities and thought, “Yeah, that would be nice,” you’ll know why we work so hard to promote alternatives, and you’ll have proved CEI dead wrong.

Welcome, Moona

There’s a third participant in the Car Less Brit experimentMoona Cancino, who is chronicling her adventures here.

Like Chris Howell before her, she was inspired (or perhaps cajoled) by the Car Less Brit to join the slowly swelling ranks of those abandoning their cars (or at least leaving them behind as much as possible) and taking advantage of cleaner, cheaper, friendlier transportation options.  Though the Experiment was never intended to be a bicycle-specific phenomenon (River has made some efforts to highlight the other modes available in Roanoke), it has, for reasons I intend on exploring at a later date, largely focused on the bicycle.  I was glad, therefore, to see the following comment in Moona’s second blog entry:

I have just as many adventures walking as I do biking.  So I would simply like it to be known that walking is my first love.  It is much simplier than riding a bike.  I never have to fix a flat, true my tires, or grease the chain.  I can go as I am.  Really you can, I’ve meet a few naked walkers on my travels!  Yes, I may write about riding my bike in Roanoke, but Roanoke has embraced me in all different modes of transportation.  Remember this experiment is not simply about riding your bike and being crazy.

Right on.

Good luck to the Car Less Brit and the Car Less Moms.  We’ll be watching!