Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Ride to Chattanooga is Paved with PR

In Georgia, our TV and print media recently reported on the development of a 161-mile bicycle route connecting Atlanta with Chattanooga.
Most of the details in these reports come from a press release issued by the public relations office at Georgia's Department of Transportation. U.S. Bike Route 21 is the first of its kind in Georgia and will eventually connect with other bike routes going all the way to Cleveland, Ohio.
But GDOT's press release doesn't answer the most pertinent question, what is it? Clearly none of the "news" outlets could be bothered to ask.
I had to dig hard in order to find a map of the route. As a result, here's my description of USBR 21:
Start at Five Points in downtown Atlanta, ride north to Smyrna, get on the Silver Comet Trail, ride to Cedartown, make a right and head north on a bunch of two-lane country roads (except for a stretch of heavily-travelled Georgia Route 20 west of Rome), until you see the "Welcome to Tennessee" sign.
Not a speck of new pavement was applied for the route. USBR 21's "development" was embodied by the labors of GDOT's Bicycle Coordinator, who presumably drew a bunch of lines on a map and then attended an embarrassing number of meetings and conference calls to make it official.
As for the future of USBR 21, our Coordinator at GDOT is "exploring possible sources of funding for the installation of signs along the route."
I hope this at least inspires some individuals to plan their two-wheeled adventures to Chattanooga, or Atlanta. Or Cleveland.
But don't wait for GDOT to install the route markers. Just follow the "See Rock City" signs.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Revolution For Nice People in a Nice Country

The documentary is called Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom (available only on Netflix.)

For 93 days in 2013 and 2014, the Ukraine witnessed a revolution which started as a nonviolent protest by students against the autocratic behavior of President Viktor Yanukovych. Shortly thereafter it turned into a bloody, full-fledged revolution.

This movie, which is only available on Netflix, provides a gripping view from the streets, streets which look very modern, very westernized. Imagine a situation where your favorite sushi restaurant has been turned into an ad hoc aid station for injured protesters.

It's a cautionary tale containing a message of hope, especially for anyone who feels the slide of our society towards authoritarian rule. Important lessons:
  1. The protesters eschewed politics and politicians. They had few demands, but those demands were non negotiable: the removal of a President that was aligning the Ukraine with Russia without the consent of the people, and the return of free elections.
  2. Patriotism motivated people of diverse backgrounds to join the revolt. People of all political, ethnic and religious affiliations saw this opportunity to express their love for their country, fighting a current regime which did not represent the nation's interests. While protesters were brutally beaten by government security forces they sang the national anthem.
  3. Nonviolence was preferred but not mandatory. The authorities easily corrupted protesters' initial use of nonviolence through the use of agent provocateurs, and then they retaliated with their own increasingly-violent repressions.
  4. Protesters have to embrace their struggle and their willingness to sacrifice. The public is galvanized against the authorities once they see how far the authorities will go to smash people just like them.
  5. The revolution only works when cultural institutions are all-in. Students were amongst the first to join, and as usual religious leaders are amongst the last.
Ultimately Winter on Fire leaves us on a sad note, as the successful fight for Ukrainian self-rule was not sufficient in preventing further Russian interference in their affairs, as the bloody civil war there continues to prove.

For Ukrainians this is nothing new, and I hope they someday find the peace they deserve.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

An Earth Day Greeting Card

I was never a big fan of Hallmark holidays, and today feels like another one of them. Earth Day was not always like that. The first one in 1970 had real significance.

45 years ago the world seemed to be changing for the good. The actions of the baby boomer, flower power generation were nudging industrial civilization away from the abyss.

The early 1970s would see a Republican (!) President establish the Environmental Protection Agency, giving the environment near Cabinet-level importance. We also saw passage of two most important environmental laws, The Clean Water Act and The Clean Air Act.

But then something happened. Industrial civilization fought back both politically and culturally. The environmental activists who helped win us those early victories were drawn into the political economy they were out to change.

I had opted to work within the system at the Natural Resources Defense Council, but I believed that our legal advocacy was on the path to deeper changes to our economic and societal systems... the Clean Air and Clean Water acts created major opportunities for lawyers and others, but in pursuing them we were drawn ever more completely into the system. ...We opted to work within the system of political economy that we found, and we neglected to seek the transformation of the system itself.
-- James Gustave Speth

Enter the era of greenwashing. Greenwashing provides the appearance of action without meaningful results. It also is a clever blame-shifting maneuver.

Remember, pollution is your fault, not the fault of those who profit from it.

In these and other ways industrial civilization co-opted the environmental movement and placed it at heel, where it has remained until today.
When viewed on a broad, planetary scale, humanity has never seen the Earth in greater peril. We place our faith in science and technology to solve our environmental problems, in hopes that we may avoid making inconvenient changes to our living arrangements.

In service to these hopes the term “sustainability” has become unavoidable in business, governmental and academic sectors, but with little context. Now get a load of this: none of the world’s top industrial sectors would be profitable if they were paying the full cost of their activities, if they fully paid for the Earth's finite resources they rely on such as clean air, fresh water and healthy soil.

They take what is a birthright for us all, and then privatize the economic gains. This is why our neoliberal, materialist economy is consuming the planet. It assumes that growth (in population, material wealth, consumption) must and will continue indefinitely. It is the very definition of unsustainable.

This makes the whole notion of “sustainability” as currently practiced a bad joke. If you are not in the business of changing the way we value and measure “progress”, you are not in the sustainability business. It's like bailing out the Titanic with teacups.

So go ahead. Celebrate the day. Send the Earth a card, one printed on 50% recycled-content paper.

Or for true inspiration, read the Blue River Declaration and celebrate a greenwash-free Earth Day.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Urban Amphibious

A Civil War battle. A conduit for Atlanta's waste. A watershed that drains most of Atlanta north of Dekalb Avenue and east of Marietta Boulevard.

Each of these describes Peachtree Creek, and each a motivation to pull the Creek out of the obscurity that it harbors in the minds of most who live here.

David Kaufman's 2007 book of the same title is a must-have for current and former Atlanta residents wanting to develop a stronger sense of place, for Peachtree Creek (along with other creeks) defines this City over a longer and more historical respect than even its famous highways do. Kaufman demonstrates a profound curiosity for the sights, history, physical dynamics and people associated with the Creek.

Moreover he shares with the reader his sense of adventure, and by experiencing Peachtree Creek first-hand his accounts of it become alive. For thirteen years Kaufman explored Peachtree Creek and its tributaries by canoe, braving the hazards of flash flooding, polluted water, and human activity largely ungoverned by civilized existence occurring on the stream banks and bridges above.

While I have limited experience paddling, there was much in this book that felt familiar to me. Several years ago a friend of mine and I bicycled the Atlanta BeltLine while it was still mostly kudzu and abandoned rails. Had I read Peachtree Creek beforehand, I probably would have made more of an effort to document what turned out to be an epic journey. Sadly that moment is now gone.

Let this book stoke your sense of urban adventure, a desire to find a grounding with your surroundings, and a curiosity to learn what might be hidden literally underneath your feet.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Bicycle U-Lock Makers: The Old Skool Awaits You

I have a bicycle U-lock that is probably one of the best ever made, by Kryptonite or anyone else. It's also over 35 years old, the third version of the original Kryptonite lock.

In light of all the bad press that modern u-locks are getting, I don't understand why the U-lock makers do not resurrect this design.

The lock is constructed of flat, hardened steel stock about 1.5 inches wide and 1/8 inch thick, not the round steel stock used in later variations and still used today. That flat steel construction allows the lock to be secured in a way that probably makes it impervious to the prying tools used to devastating effect by bike thieves on most contemporary U-lock designs.

The flat steel crossbar of the 1970's Kryptonite lock inserts through a slot in the U-shaped shackle and enters a locking "bonnet" where metal fingers engage two holes in the end of the crossbar.

This puppy will not be pried apart, not without some serious hydraulic action.

It features a high-quality, vending machine-grade integrated cylinder lock (not the cost-reduced cylinder locks of Kryptonite's infamous Bic-pen-picking days) and weighs a little over two pounds.

To this day I use my 1970's-era Kryptonite U-lock regularly throughout my travels in the City of Atlanta and have experienced no thefts and no attempted thefts.

My guess is, the best way to defeat my lock is with an angle grinder.
Good luck.

By 1978 Kryptonite and its imitators adopted the use of round steel stock in their U-lock designs, to make the locks easier to coat with a protective plastic jacket and to make the lock easier to attach to a bicycle frame with the use of a mounting bracket, which incidentally, few lock owners bother to use.

But bicycle thieves have found numerous ways to pry apart these successors to the original Kryptonite U-lock design.

Kryptonite, or any of your competitors, we are waiting for you to provide a u-lock design that is known to work, and work very well.

As always, thank you for reading!

Note: I found some useful reference material for this article courtesy of Sheldon Brown.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Why We Drive: The Past, Present, and Future of Automobiles in America

Why We Drive: The Past, Present, and Future of Automobiles in America

by Andy Singer

Why do we drive? At face value the answer seems obvious. America's reliance on the automobile is a logical, inevitable result of our historic quest for personal mobility that provides us speed and convenience at the lowest cost.
Or is it?
Andy Singer is a cartoonist and self-described advocate for car-free cities and car-free living.
He has an ax to grind, and his latest book does so as an entertaining, informed, compelling read. Singer shows how our development into a sprawling, automobile-centric society was not inevitable. Instead it resulted from a combination of technological, political, even criminal developments that were hardly preordained.
Better yet the same developments are correctable, once we gain the collective will to act.
Singer's book presents itself as a scripted slide show full of archival photographs and his distinctive cartoons, each paired with with a concise narration. He provides ample footnotes for those readers wishing to delve further.
I like the way that Singer organizes Why We Drive in three parts. First he explains why we should not and cannot continue to rely so heavily on the automobile for our personal transportation needs.
The book then turns to describing how roads and highways came to shape the development of the United States during the latter half of the twentieth century. Based on this foundational understanding Singer then suggests a rich set of tactics for advocates hungry for change.
As for our cherished automobile Singer itemizes the ways that urban freeways have proven to be toxic to cities. While many before Singer have chronicled how the construction of urban freeways tore apart otherwise vibrant and healthy (and often populated by people of color) neighborhoods, Singer re-frames the automobiles' place in urban environments as a waste of space.
40-60 percent of the average American city has been paved, for use by the automobile in the form of roads and parking lots. Singer explains that when commercial and residential real estate are demolished to make way for the automobile, the city loses badly-needed property tax revenue, and this lost revenue represents a hidden subsidy to motorists, especially those nonresidents who commute to the city and otherwise pay no taxes in return for the city services they use.
To those espousing the principles of a free market this is called a "free rider" problem..
Singer provides a lesson on the political science of government transportation agencies and how the development of these powerful agencies in the early twentieth century opened a new era of "big government" politics, beginning with Robert Moses' Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority in New York. Singer also provides an interesting aside on how taxpayer-funded roads and highways once was the cause for many Democratic politicians but over time has become more of a Republican priority.
Gracing this book's cover is a photograph of two men mugging for the camera while one hands the other a check over a handshake...while a streetcar burns behind them. This is the sordid story of National City Lines, a conspiracy by some of America's biggest and most well-respected corporations to jumpstart the sales of automobiles and buses in our cities by removing their biggest competitor: the urban street car lines. Through fraud, conspiracy and embezzlement they bought and dismantled over 100 rail transit systems in 45 U.S. cities. While they were ultimately convicted in court, they got away with it with nothing more than slaps on the wrist.
Singer gets it right by including a fact often lost in the retelling of this story. However vulnerable the privately-owned and operated street car lines were at the time, they were made vulnerable as they struggled to compete with the roads and highways being paid for by the taxpayers. This is a case where state and local governments unfairly helped to pick the winners. While today we often bemoan the problems endemic with our publicly-run transit systems, it's instructive to know that part of what ails them is rooted in the way that governments entered the road-building business.
To contemplate the tremendous economic damage this caused, one only has to tally the costs of all the "light rail" construction projects currently underway in many U.S. cities. Late last year I was observing up close the excavation work for the new Atlanta Streetcar. Workers had unearthed rails from Atlanta's first streetcar system, buried under the pavement since the 1950's.
Singer takes a poignant dig at a concept widely-embraced by proponents of "green technologies": alternatively-fueled vehicles and hybrids. He states: "Those advocating for vehicles using hydrogen, ethanol, electricity and other forms of non-petroleum fuels often overlook the fact that 25-40% of all the pollution and greenhouse gas that a car will emit during its lifetime do not come from its tailpipe. Instead, they come from its manufacture and disposal."

I also might add that all of the Priuses, Leafs, Insights, Teslas, Volts and sundry methane/ethanol burners do nothing to relieve us of traffic congestion and its attendant problems. They say that you cannot make yourself green merely by buying the right stuff, and the same applies to those seeking their green cred based on what they drive.
So much for the trashing of automobile culture and conventional wisdom for our solutions. The last part of Singer's book contains answers, some that work on the grassroots level and some that work on a systemic level. We can show people how, by offering choices for quality transportation, everyone benefits. We can demonstrate how public subsidies work both for and against the kinds of transportation choices we want. And we have a lot we can do to correct the flaws inherent to rules which govern land use and how our taxes are spent.
Singer includes a useful directory of campaigning organizations.
This book's message is clear and hopeful. Just because we of this current generation arrived where we are on four wheels does not mean we have to go out that way. Why We Drive is a fresh addition to the pantheon of great books about transportation and society such as Asphalt Nation and the Geography of Nowhere.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Avoiding the Broken-Leg Approach to Sustainability

When any organization starts an environmental sustainability effort, all stakeholders should ask what the reason or reasons are for doing it. By cruising the web and reading about the sustainability programs of any number of businesses and governments one quickly sees how many of these organizations are challenged in answering this simple question, Why?
The most frequently-stated answer is, because we care.
And then begins their lists of “sustainability” activities: office waste recycling, energy efficient lighting upgrades, reductions in water usage for manufacturing, LEED certification of buildings, maybe some carbon offsets and solar panels. These all probably sound familiar.
Having a laundry list of “green” activities is helpful to the environment to some extent and might save money for the organization. But in the grand scheme of things this doesn't necessarily make the client organization more sustainable.
Is it simply a greenwash, for PR purposes? Is it the naïve tendency of the organization's leaders to take some benign feel-good actions to improve workforce morale? Whatever the real reason, we all could use a better answer to Why?
And also to How?
Here is an article by Dr. Kevin Lynch that concisely answers both questions better than any I have seen before. The Hidden Price of Simplifying Sustainability: Rethinking How We Think about Sustainable Systems
It starts with the use of the term, sustainability. The designer Bill McDonough has often observed how the term itself falls short if only in that it lacks a capacity to inspire people. As McDonough jokes, people are not inclined to answer the friendly question,
“How's your marriage going?”
“It's sustainable.”
Despite its shortcomings the term sustainability carries with it meaning that goes beyond “environmental”, beyond “green.” Absent a better term at our disposal Kevin Lynch provides a definition for sustainability so clear, so complete that I will restate it here:

Sustainability is the careful and efficient stewardship of resources by businesses, communities and citizens. It is the practice of meeting our needs in ways that are respectful of future generations and restorative of natural, cultural, and financial assets. Sustainable management is a whole systems approach to achieving superior performance in delivering desired outcomes to all stakeholders by business, government, and civil society. It is achieved by implementing the three principles of Natural Capitalism which are (1) Buy time by using resources dramatically more productively, (2) Redesign industrial processes and the delivery of products and services to do business as nature does, using such approaches as biomimicry and cradle to cradle, and (3) Manage all institutions to be restorative of natural and human capital. 
- courtesy of the website for Natural Capitalism Solutions

Lynch goes on to make the case for taking a whole-systems approach to sustainability as advocated by Peter Senge in his book The Fifth Discipline.
We all live and work within systems, some of which are physical and some products of the human imagination. Either type of system can add complexity so severe that we are compelled to reducing them into rational components which we can more easily describe and analyze.
For example while seeking medical care we may visit a general practitioner, but when we are really sick we prefer seeing the cardiologist, the oncologist, the ENT, etc. And so our sustainability programs are rationalized into water, air, materials, people, wildlife, and so on.
We certainly need to rationalize for help solving a specific problem such as a broken leg…but not in planning for sustainability.
Not without a whole-systems approach can we adequately see the consequences of our actions; we lose our intrinsic sense of connection to a larger whole. Living organisms, ecosystems, the Earth are not machines. They work and thrive not simply as a sum of discrete components or compartments. Neither should a sustainability program.
Rationalization in this way prevents us from adequately accounting for the harm caused by our enterprises, although the associated costs of this harm haven't disappeared. Someone winds up paying for unsustainable behavior as externalized costs, which is economist-speak for unclaimed costs that are eventually paid for by society or some unwitting portion of society. This is anathema to those who advocate for free-markets, as the externalized costs provide is no disincentive for bad behavior. The market then fails in serving our interests.
Also when we rationalize we respond with actions that only treat symptoms instead of root causes. We fail to identify leverage points in these complex systems where our actions return maximum benefit.
This reminds me of a case study that Charles Duhig included in his book, The Power of Habit.
In 1987 Paul O'Neil was taking over the reins as CEO of the metals industry giant Alcoa, whose profits were sagging to the dismay of investors. He soon announced his corporate turnaround strategy: reduce occupational injury rates as close to zero as possible. Industry insiders and stock analysts responded with a collective, “Huh?”
But O'Neil understood that turning around his company depended on changing the ingrained company culture and the patterns of behavior of the employees. Alcoa, like all complex human enterprises, operates by systems within systems, and every day his employees were making thousands of individual decisions that resulted in waste and lost potential.
So O'Neil launched his accident elimination initiative, involving every single worker and manager in his operations. This began a widespread culture change at Alcoa's factories. How “Keystone Habits” Transformed a Corporation
To shift worker safety habits, O'Neill created more open policies governing the way that workers and communicated. This and other measures began to produce results.
Over the following 10 years it became five times safer to work at Alcoa. On average the workers are more likely to get injured at a software company, animating cartoons for movie studios, or doing taxes as an accountant than handling molten aluminum at an Alcoa factory.
But this is where the magic starts, because O’Neil’s program was intervening at a behavioral leverage point. By changing some of their keystone habits it became easier to move his employees to improve their behaviors in other ways, especially in allowing them to take more ownership of the results they produced. That lifted profits.
O'Neill helped push Alcoa's annual earnings from 20 cents per share in 1994 to $1.41 in 1999, when he stepped down. He also helped boost sales an average of 15% per year in the same period.
“Having ideas that are related to each other is really a useful way of thinking about things,” O'Neill said. “It's hard to find people these days who think in holistic ways.”
That’s systems thinking. While this example does not relate directly to sustainability, I hope you can see how broadly this applies to activities in our personal and professional lives.
This is how your approach to planning for sustainability differs from the approach you take to solving a simple illness. Once you charter your organization's sustainability program to answer the question why?, systems thinking becomes part of the how?.