photo by James D. Schwartz. Some rights reserved.
NECESSARY DISCLAIMER, right at the top of the post. Unlike some Green Mien posts which are by necessity what some might label “huge downers,” this post is going to start off with some heavy pessimism, but stick around, because its going to take a pretty huge U-turn towards relentless optimism at about the halfway point. But so, let’s begin: gas prices aren’t looking so great right now. This is not news to, well, anyone. Despite a valiant effort this week by Senate Democrats to strip big oil companies of unnecessary tax breaks and use these funds to try and mitigate oil prices (an effort that will almost surely fail when it reaches the Republican House of Representatives anyways), gas prices have peaked over the $4.00/gal threshold nationally, with the per/barrel price at $103.
A well-researched article by Derek Thompson in the Atlantic last month offered a breakdown of factors in rising gas prices, citing Supply and Demand as responsible for more than 50% of oil prices, with the Middle East, the Weak Dollar, and Summer Travel trailing behind. Well, demand for oil is at an all time high, our relationship with the Middle East is as shaky as its ever been, the dollar continues to fall, and we are just around the corner from another summer of gas-guzzling vacations. Sounds a bit like a perfect storm. So where do we go from here?
Two new, unrelated videos surfaced online this week that each examine or dream up alternatives to the auto-centric path (four-lane mega-freeway) we’ve found ourselves on, by focusing on the two biggest cities in America: Los Angeles and New York. The first, an extremely well-produced and animated short film by Sarah Fleming, Tam Thien Tran, and Toon Virochpoka, takes a bold look at how to transform Los Angeles from a notoriously car-centric city into a commuter haven by 2030:
As the video explains in a series of spiffy infographics, a whopping 79% of current Los Angeles residents drive a car to work, with parking lots and structures taking up 36% of all land in L.A. This video imagines a utopia in which all parking lots would be eliminated or moved to the edges of the city, freeing up land to build sturdier, more vibrant communities, and in which only zero emission cars would be allowed on the streets. This shift in transportation priorities would have positive effects both culturally and financially: the video proposes revitalizing the Alameda Corridor, a 20 mile train expressway that runs from Los Angeles to Long Beach, and building up local agriculture in the area, creating a stronger synergistic bond between local growers and local consumers. If all that doesn’t sound positively serene enough, the video also explores the possibility of above ground urban walkways and new forms of sky transportation, such as cross-city gondolas. The future!
The second video, shot and edited by Clarence Eckerson Jr., takes a more grounded approach, examining the progress that has already been made in New York City by adding bike lanes and more space for pedestrians to certain dangerous arterials in downtown Manhattan:
By popular consensus, New York seems to have a much better reputation than L.A. as a commuter city. However, as a recent article in New York Magazine highlights, there is still some obvious discord between bike commuters and motorists. This video makes a point to highlight the fact that less than 50% of New Yorkers own cars, and that transportation priorities in the city have to shift in order to better accommodate bikers and pedestrians. The video showcases ongoing traffic revision projects on major New York streets like Colombus Ave., or 1st and 2nd avenues in Manhattan. Rather than eliminating any lanes, the existing traffic lanes were simply narrowed, adding room for two-way bike lanes and larger crosswalks and islands for pedestrians. This seems like a best case scenario for all involved: cyclists and pedestrians have more room, and cars are forced to lower their speeds enough to greatly reduce auto-related injuries. There are even plans to plant more trees and flowers in the pedestrian islands that the bike lanes have afforded.
I can’t begin to explain how pleased I was to stumble across both of these videos on the same sunny, Seattle afternoon. Both offer optimistic-yet-feasible plans that re-envision the future of urban planning and city culture, with work in New York already largely underway. If this kind of large-scale commuter project can work in New York, who’s to say it can’t work everywhere else? For as Sinatra once sang about the Big Apple: “if I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere…”