Going Places

Two weeks ago, I posted about a technology that would capture the energy in a footfall: SolePower. Approximately one-quarter (25%!) of world energy demand comes from transportation (including transporting fuels). Technically, walking ultimately requires fuel (it requires human momentum, possible through the contraction of muscles powered by caloric expenditure; caloric intake happens only with the expenditure of energy to prepare foods, buy foods from store, have foods shipped to store, have foods processed from farmer, have foods shipped from farmer to processing plant, have plants grown in fields typically maintained with tractors and/or trucks (consuming energy to function), have seeds shipped to farm to be grown in fields… etc.).

However, in the U.S., walking is typically considered more eccentric, or dangerous, or health-conscious than “practical.” In my experience, it is rare to find people who rely on walking as transportation–those who do are often either (a) forced to by necessity or (b) able to make a series of decisions (such as workplace location) to support a goal of walking to work.

In Europe, pedestrianism is far more normalized. I have gotten used to being able to walk anywhere, even if it might take a long time. Often, walking feels like the most convenient and practical way to get somewhere. Other times, while the area I need to walk doesn’t seem pedestrian-friendly, it is still possible to walk there with “amenities” such as a decent sidewalk and thoughtful designated crossing zones.

Part of my walk home from the bus stop (Francheville, France, 2014).

Part of my walk home from the bus stop (Francheville, France, 2014).

One of the roads I run along (because it has a sidewalk) initially surprised me (because it has a sidewalk). In the U.S., a road like this one–with a high wall on one side and agricultural area on the other–might have a shoulder, but would probably not have a curb; it’s also a narrow enough road that it might be one with an abbreviated shoulder, the kind that is only a foot or so wide (not wide enough to pull over onto). Yet here there is a fully developed and maintained sidewalk with a curb–a dramatically safer environment for pedestrian travel.

But before I go further, I will concede that significant transportation actually transports things not people. So even minimizing or sharing commutes, increasing public transportation, and choosing alternative modes of transit such as biking or walking do not address the comprehensive issue of transportation. However, for the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to focus on how humans get from one place to another and the barriers to more ecological transportation methods.

In comparing America and Europe, it’s clear that neither region is doing things perfectly. In many places I have visited (both in the U.S. and Europe), public transit is confusing (or at least hard to figure out initially), late, frequently rerouted, or inconvenient. During school holidays in France–two weeks every 6-8 weeks (!)–all public transit schedules change. In Lyon, I will sometimes wait 45 minutes for a bus that would normally come every 5. In Baltimore, there is a metro line that runs near our house, but it has few useful stops (it’s good for going to the airport or baseball games and back, but that’s about it).

What I have not said so far, though, is that the car is the default mode of travel for most Americans (with some notable exceptions, as in New York City). This is a problem. Not only is it a problem in America, but car use worldwide is increasing–the number of cars on the road is only going up. As a result, we have more traffic blocks and more demand for road construction. Even if you don’t care about the environment, roads projects are expensive and traffic jams are annoying and time-consuming.

Yet the fact that a lot of us end up in traffic jams says that a lot of us are going in the same direction at the same time. I hate commuting more than almost anything else I can think of. Just thinking about it gives me a sense of rage. I don’t understand people who can commute daily and not end up becoming serial killers–seriously, how do you stay sane? (Books on tape?) Yet this is what a lot of transportation does: takes us to and from work.

Tele-commuting is starting to gain popularity, despite some resistance from some management. It may require more self-discipline to avoid distractions at home rather than in a cubicle, but you may also be more easily able to avoid distractions like interrupting co-workers or tedious, unnecessary meetings. Working from home in many professions makes a lot of sense, though, especially with increased Internet connectivity and the ability to even be “face-to-face” through technology like Skype. It can also mean opening professions to individuals who are perfectly capable of doing the work, but may not be able to maintain a typical 9-5 schedule (I’m thinking of people with certain disabilities, parents will small children at home, part-time students, etc.).

Yet some business cannot be conducted through teleworking, and some workers may prefer having the away-from-home office space. So we still need ways to get to work. In America, the immediate answer is often CAR. However, public transportation usage is increasing in a noticeable way. I’m pretty sure that if we built effective public transit, they–commuters and anyone else needing to get places–would come.

Place Bellecour, Lyon, March 2014

Place Bellecour, Lyon, March 2014

But the problem is not just public transportation infrastructure; the question of transportation also arises because we cover so much distance with so little thought. I had never thought of America as a sprawling country until I lived in a city apartment in France. I had always recognized, conceptually, that America was more spread out than most European countries, but in the back of my head I had always been thinking, “but we have cities too!”

All cities are not like each other! While European cities are typically built around human-scale, American cities often seem to cater to car-scale. In Europe, commerce and residence are more integrated. In America, we tend to have clusters of housing disconnected from clusters of shopping venues. Where I live in a Baltimore suburb, for example, it takes about 20-30 minutes (more in heavy traffic, and there is often heavy traffic on the one main road connecting these areas) to drive between my house and our usual grocery store. Here, it takes about 20-30 minutes to walk to my usual grocery store. There is also a convenient bus route that would cut this time at least in half.

The barriers to more ecological personal transportation can generally be classified as either (1) Cultural barriers (typically resistance at a personal level due to cultural ideology), (2) Infrastructure (inefficiency, failure, or lack of existence), or (3) Place design (urban design is critical, but so is suburban and even rural land distribution).

This post comes up short in offering meaningful solutions. As I continue to explore this theme, I will be referring back to this initial conceptual framework. Figuring out solutions to a problem–and transportation is a serious problem–often requires careful reckoning of the geography of the problem itself. In this case, the problem of sprawl and disconnection is a sprawling problem in its own right. This is Post 1 of an attempt to grapple with some of these issues.

  1. “Figuring out solutions to a problem–and transportation is a serious problem–often requires careful reckoning of the geography of the problem itself. In this case, the problem of sprawl and disconnection is a sprawling problem in its own right.”

    In Post 2 you may want to explore how it might be possible to eliminate a huge (and growing) amount of unnecessary ‘commuting’ simply through the use of glass. Take a look at A Day Made of Glass and I think you’ll see what I mean…

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