Energy, Transportation

Biking Can Save Us

No Comments Posted on 24 December 2011 by Yetsuh Frank

Change is a funny thing. Often when I discuss subjects like urban agriculture someone will scoff and say, “You can’t feed everyone through urban farming.”  But the hope is to reduce our dependance on, not eliminate, industrial agriculture.  (And is it churlish to point out that our current agricultural system also doesn’t feed everyone?)  When I raise the prospect of renewable energy I can expect a similar response- and have a similar answer at the ready.  The same goes for biking.  When I argue for continuing the expansion of bike lanes in NYC I am rebuffed with a lot of high dudgeon about how biking isn’t for everyone, that sometimes you need to transport kids or groceries, etc. etc.  But no one is calling for the impound of all combustion powered vehicles.  We are simply hoping to make the city a more hospitable place for cyclists and pedestrians.  I have found that the arguments that are most persuasive in this regard are the ones that explain the multiple positive impacts of these new systems.  Not just from one perspective but from many.  The folks at an organization called Healthcare Management Degree have developed a series of infographics on biking and health that are brilliant example of this.  Their graphics link the impact of driving on public health, the positive impacts of biking on individual health (average weight loss in ONE YEAR = 13 lbs.!) and, perhaps the most compelling argument in this era of tight budgets, the considerable reduction in health care costs. They might have expanded these issues to include positive community impacts like the retention of local dollars, but they are a health care company so we’ll let that slide.

Santa- all I want for Christmas is for someone to develop a similar set of graphics for my other pet causes: retrofitting existing buildings, smart growth planning, and coffee.

Construction, Energy, Planning, Transportation

Apple vs. Google

3 Comments Posted on 01 July 2011 by Yetsuh Frank

Quite a few people have commented on the recent proposal by Apple to build a kind of suburban spaceship headquarters (pictured above) in Cupertino, CA.  Alexandra Lange at Design Observer has noted that suburban HQ’s are decidedly retro, and Lloyd Alter at Treehugger is reminded of the passage from Lord of the Rings, “One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them” and predicts the end of the creative giant (Apple, not Sauron.)

There is something kind of creepy about the uber-slick aesthetic Apple has successfully applied to their gadgets and retail stores being applied to such a massive structure. With a diameter similar to the Pentagon, the pop cultural reference it brought to mind for me was Revenge of the Sith. But that’s all totally subjective. What struck me most forcefully was the difference between this particular design solution and the solution proposed by another global tech company trying to house a rapidly growing workforce: Google.

First, let’s review the Apple proposal. The building, though only 4 stories in height is massive and is designed to provide space for 12,000 employees. Presenting the project to Cupertino City Council (see the video here),  Steve Jobs points out that the current site is only 20% green space and that their proposal will increase this to 80% landscape, achieved by placing “most” of the parking underground. I put “most” in quotes because in addition to underground parking below the main building there is a huge above-ground parking structure proposed alongside I-280. Jobs says this parking structure is 4 stories because they want everything on the site to be “human scaled,” but one wonders how a parking structure that appears to be 2,000 feet long can be considered in any way approachable. To give you a sense of the scale of parking required in places like Cupertino (where everyone drives everywhere, for everything)- Apple will reduce the surface parking by 90%. It’s a laudable achievement, but still leaves 1,200 surface parking spaces on the site. Another scale adjustment for you, the “café” in the new building serves 3,000 people at a sitting.

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LEED, Planning, Transportation

NRDC Publishes A Citizen’s Guide to LEED-ND

1 Comment Posted on 07 June 2011 by Yetsuh Frank

Just in time for our upcoming workshop on the LEED for Neighborhood Development standard, NRDC has published a Citizen’s Guide to LEED ND.  Billed as a “user-friendly and accessible” document, the Guide has been developed to provide residents, policy makers and others the tools to assess the sustainability of development proposals- using the technical framework of the LEED-ND rating standard.  You can download and gather more information (include a sweet little smart growth slideshow) about the guide, here.  And Kaid Benfield of NRDC blogs about the new document, here.

Dockside Green, Vancouver, Canada. Photo Credit: Lawrence Wong

Construction, Green Codes, Initiatives, Transportation

Going and Going and Going…

No Comments Posted on 01 June 2011 by Richard Leigh

Like the relentless drumbeat of the Energizer Bunny, the Green Codes Task Force just keeps going and going and going….

Last week, five new bills were introduced in City Council based on GCTF proposals. This was after extensive review by City Council staff and legislators, and each is very close to the original Task Force recommendation in substance.  Russell Unger and I got many questions about these bills from City Council staff.  Some of them we could answer, but many times we went back to the committee members and got clear and helpful advice on what was meant, how it could be reformulated to meet some concern without compromising intent, and in many cases, data on how much the proposal would or would not cost, if implemented.  A big “thank you” to all those Task Force members!

Two of the “Intros” (proposed legislation) will improve the indoor environment.  HT 1 (“Limit Harmful Emissions From Carpets”) and HT 2 (“Limit Harmful Emissions From Paints & Glues”), combined into Intro 0585-2011, will limit the VOC emissions of carpets and carpet adhesives and the actual amount of VOCs in paints, finishes, and other adhesives. This is a very big deal, as our carpets and finishes have been filled with materials that are very bad for us, in the sense of contributing to our chances of getting cancer. The intro makes it unlawful both to install and also simply to buy or sell materials that do not meet the standards.  (Yes, a small market smuggling in high VOC material from New Jersey may operate for a while, but it will be inconvenient, illegal, and will only last until NJ codes catch up.)

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Energy, LEED, Planning, Transportation

A Building Is Not an Island

No Comments Posted on 18 May 2011 by Yetsuh Frank

On June 17th we are holding our first full-day workshop on the LEED for Neighborhood Development standard.

Although our organization largely focuses on buildings, we’ve mentioned many times the great importance we feel should be placed on community planning. Where your building is located, and the contextual fabric of that location, is often more important than the design of the building itself.  It has always been clear that choosing a greenfield site over an already urbanized location has major environmental repercussions: from simple disruption of ecology to less efficient utility distribution.  Since climate change has become the most pressing issue of our time, we have come to understand that even just within the limited focus of energy-use there is a clear imperative to curtail sprawl.  The transportation and energy impacts of a building’s location were codified into the metric of “Transportation Intensity” by Alex Wilson in a quietly transformative article at in September of 2007.  Here were the statistics that backed up many of our suspicions that, say, replacing a poorly performing inner-city high-school building with a LEED platinum school 20 miles outside the town was not an unequivocally good thing.

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Planning, Transportation

You’re Moving Where?

No Comments Posted on 26 April 2011 by Yetsuh Frank

Kaid Benfield is in high dudgeon over at the NRDC Switchboard blog, and no wonder: the EPA (you know, the agency responsible for protecting our environment, the agency promoting the federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities) is moving its Region 7 headquarters from downtown Kansas City to an appallingly suburban location- 20 miles outside town- to a building that formerly housed Applebees’ corporate offices.  Will we never learn?

Photo credit: Adam Sparks


EPA Smart Growth Award for NYC

No Comments Posted on 10 December 2010 by Yetsuh Frank

New York City has received the US EPA 2010 National Award for Smart Growth Achievement in the category of “Overall Excellence”.

The EPA cited:

* PlaNYC, which targets a reduction in city carbon emissions of 30% by 2030 (against a 2oo5 baseline), improving the City’s infrastructure, creating more open space, and improving our air and water quality.

* The Streets Design Manual, a guide to creating a walkable streetscape.

* The Zoning for Bike Parking program, which requires new developments to provide secure indoor bike parking.

* The Active Design Guidelines, which promotes “active” transportation like stairs.

* The Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) program, which incentivizes grocery stores in neighborhoods in need of more healthy food stores.

There’s a short piece on NYC and the other cities recognized over at Grist.  And it bears mentioning that, while we have played a proud role in those PlaNYC initiatives that encourage greener buildings, Transportation Alternatives have been ALL OVER the street design stuff recognized by the EPA.


Trains, Planes and Autos: Thanksgiving Edition

No Comments Posted on 29 November 2010 by Yetsuh Frank

Matt Yglesias posted this excellent graph on the BTUs per passenger mile of various transportation options. No news here but seems timely to be thinking about this following Thanksgiving weekend- one of the biggest travel weekends of the year here in the States. Yglesias makes a nice point about rail vs. air travel between places like Seattle and Portland and the impact carbon pricing would have on our options.

Clearly we need a firmer commitment to intercity rail in this country but the issue is of course much more complex than that. I traveled with my family to Boston for Thanksgiving and we certainly would consider rail travel between cities but transportation is like an ecosystem.  We drive to Boston not because of any deficiency in intercity rail options but because our destination is outside the Boston commuter network, i.e. in the Boston suburbs.  Getting there is not the problem, the problem is that once there you need a car for virtually every single movement so we have little choice but to take one.  In a sense our car is like baggage we have to bring with us.  It’s an example of the enormous hole we have dug ourselves through active and passive promotion of low density sprawl across this great country.

For a detailed look at this issue check out this report from the folks at Mobility Choice.


Bike Share NYC. It’s coming.

No Comments Posted on 24 November 2010 by Yetsuh Frank

Fantastic news (for this bike advocate, anyway) that bike sharing will be a very real part of life in NYC in the near future.

Planning, Transportation

How Expensive is the City?

1 Comment Posted on 28 May 2010 by Yetsuh Frank

At the risk of exposing my inner geek (I know, some of you are itching to point out it’s not that buried) I will reveal that I could literally spend hours at this website, the Housing + Transportation Affordability Index.  There is a lot of talk about how expensive it is to live in the city but often when people speak of this they are only talking about the costs of housing and not also the costs of transportation- which can be significant.  The H+TA website, developed by the brilliant folks at the Center for Neighborhood Technology, graphically contrasts the difference between measuring just the cost of housing and measuring the cost of housing AND transportation.  The example they use on the homepage is of Minneapolis/St. Paul metro region, below.

Basically, the blue areas are expensive and the yellow are less so.  The map on the left shows housing costs as a percentage of income, with 30% as a threshold.  The map on the right shows the combined costs of housing and transportation, with 45% as the threshold.  The difference is pretty striking, when you consider the costs of transportation the denser areas are far more affordable places to live.  But I know less than nothing about this area so I decided to look closer to home.

Here’s a look at my neighborhood, Ft. Greene-Brooklyn, where you get a finer grained example of a similar effect.  The grey block on the upper left is Ft. Greene park and the map on the left shows clearly that housing near the park is more expensive, no surprise. But adding the costs of transportation you see that some blocks close to the park are more affordable and, of course, some blocks near transportation are more affordable as well.

I then looked at the suburban neighborhood I grew up in outside Seattle, Washington and here you see a kind of inverse version of the same concept.  On the right hand side of the maps you can see the edge of Lake Washington.  The big blank spot in the middle is, of course, a shopping mall.  On the left everything looks fine- an inexpensive place to live.  But when you consider the costs of transportation you see that living next the mall (as I did) is only 10% less than living next the lake (which I decidedly did not.)

CNT has noted that the state of Illinois has adopted H+T as a planning tool.  Expect this sort of data to play a big role in municipal planning around the country in the years ahead.

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