Saturday, September 28, 2013

Climate Ride Wrap Up


Washington DC has the reputation of being a serious, buttoned-up place, but 200 cyclists riding several miles down Constitution Ave on September 25, ringing their bells momentarily turned downtown into a joyous party. Getting that police escort, riding among people I'd just biked 300 miles from New York with, was one of the best experiences I've ever had. After pedaling up and down some lonely, beautiful hills in rural New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland, after skirting the occasional unfriendly suburban sprawl and disgruntled driver, it was as if my city was welcoming me back with open arms. We were joined by some locals on Capital Bikeshare bikes, a welcome wagon from the Washington Area Bicyclist Association and families of riders on their own bikes. 

I've been to a lot of climate rallies, but this one had the best energy. Why? We weren't telling leaders that the world would be a better place with clean energy and bike/pedestrian-friendly cities, we were demonstrating that truth by practicing it. 

Here are some other things I learned on the ride:

New York City Loves Bicycles: We started our journey in New York City. The first bike I saw from the window of the Bolt Bus that had taken me up there was a Citi Bike, New York's brand new bikeshare system. It's only taken two months for 6,000 of these bright blue bikes to take over the city. I saw people riding them everywhere. This despite the software glitches the system had faced during its launch. But it wasn't just bikeshare. Emerging from the Bedford Ave. subway station in Brooklyn, I was greeted by piles of multicolored bikes locked everywhere. The local I rented a room from in the East Village told me neighborhoods around the city are clamoring for more bikeshare stations. I felt perfectly safe riding the few first miles of the ride from Brooklyn to the ferry in Manhattan.



America is Beautiful and Ugly: Riding through suburban Philadelphia's strip malls and under a handful of highway exit/entry ramps makes a cyclist feel vulnerable. Several folks on our ride, myself included, were shouted at or blown exhaust by drivers who felt we didn't belong there. We passed some pretty atrocious looking Desperate Housewives-style mansions in New Jersey. 

But for the most part, I was overcome by the beauty and friendlienss of this region. The charming towns of Princeton, NJ and Doyleston, PA, the sweeping beauty of Amish Country, the peaceful winding roads through forested state and national parks, the majesty of the Susquehanna River. It was exhilarating topping hills and flying down them, past Norman Rockwell barns, soybean fields and Amish laundry whipping on lines in the wind. This is one of the busiest corridors in the country, but at times it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere.



The Body Adjusts: I'd never done a multi-day bike ride before. I'd never climbed hills as steep and long as some of the monsters I encountered in PA and MD. I anticipated feeling more worn down as the days progressed, but I actually felt myself adjusting to the challenge. Most of the other riders seemed to share this feeling. We hit our tents/cabins each night completely wiped out, but somehow found ourselves reenergized each morning. The smorgasbord of food and snacks constantly provided by the Climate Ride staff kept us fueled up.

Riding With Others Helps: Even with 200 riders I occasionally found myself riding alone. As an introvert, I feel comfortable in solitude. But it was also nice when a group would come up behind me and we could ride in a pack, especially in busier sections. One of my favorite moments was in Pennsylvania, when after surmounting a somewhat challenging hill, I came across a group of Bostonians ("the ACE crew") taking a snack break who spontaneously began cheering and joking with other people coming up the hill. The support staff (medic, bike mechanic, etc.) who constantly passed us was also reassuring.

Congress Needs to Hear From Us: The day after the ride I joined my Citizens Climate Lobby teammates and other Climate Riders to visit about 100 members of Congress to press for climate legislation. This issue is urgent: The brand new IPCC report says that the world's scientists are as certain that humans are causing global warming as cigarettes cause cancer. That means we're in for more severe storms like Sandy, more droughts, inundated coastlines and a host of other impacts affecting every corner of our lives. Despite this, Congress isn't moving on lowering our emissions. Citizens Climate Lobby is aiming to change this situation, and you can help by reaching out to your member of Congress to tell them you want them to do something about climate change.

Me and my Citizens Climate Lobby teammates in Brooklyn: Ashley, Sieren, me, Danny and Joe
... and in DC
And if you're inspired to participate in the Climate Ride yourself, registration for next year's California Ride and Glacier National Park Climate Hike are already open. You can also build your own challenge (marathon? pie eating contest?) using Climate Ride's fundraising platform. Rumor is a 2014 Midwest Climate Ride (eeee!) is in the works too. Join the Climate Ride mailing list to keep up with opportunities.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Open Letter to Michigan Department of Transportation

Dear Mr. Morosi,

Last month during a visit to my family in Michigan, I stood on RiverWalk overlooking the Detroit River. I don’t recall ever seeing the river up close and was shocked by how blue and crisp it was, much like the Great Lakes system it feeds into. After years of living in Washington DC, I’m used to the brackish brown color of the Potomac River. Don’t get me wrong. I love the Potomac River: the majesty of Great Falls National Park, kayaking under the historic Key Bridge, the forests that line its shores.

But when I look into the Detroit River, or walk the rolling dunes of Lake Michigan, or search for Petoskey stones with my nieces and nephew on the beaches of Lake Huron, I feel such an ache for the unique beauty of this state. The designation “pure” is appropriate. Despite the pollution I know is there, despite the invasive muscles and carp and shrinking water levels, “pure” is the precise word that comes to mind when I look at the horizon and see blue glacial lake meeting a blue sky. There is no place like this on earth.

My feelings toward Michigan’s built environment are another thing entirely.

When I was a kid, I didn’t know that the way American cities -- and particularly cities in Southeast Michigan -- were designed was unusual from a global perspective. It seemed self-evident that the only way to get around was by car.

But when I visited Ireland in 2003, I was surprised to discover that many of the Irish 20-somethings I met had never gotten a drivers license. Their compact cities didn’t require it. Years later, I envied the Japanese and Germans their beautiful, widely used, and efficient public transit systems: the yellow trams quietly criss-crossing Berlin, the humming bullet train from Nagoya to Kyoto. And then I saw incredible videos of rush hour bike traffic in Copenhagen and learned that 63% of the Danish Parliament gets to work by bike every day.

The US was supposed to be such a rich country. Why didn't we have this stuff?



I later learned that some US cities did in fact, have this stuff (sans bullet train): Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, San Francisco, etc. They all had rail and bus networks that put my home state to shame.

When I moved to Washington DC in 2012, I sold my car and joined the 37% of DC residents who get around solely by Metro, buses, bikes and walking. Within the next year, we’ll also have a new streetcar, a new Metro line and bikeshare stations extending to more cities (the system just celebrated 5 million rides). Despite the explosive growth of the DC’s population, its car count has remained relatively steady because of the many options we have to get around. Metro DC certainly has its own well-known transportation problems, but it's undeniably easier to live here without a car.

In light of this, my twice-yearly family visits to Michigan always frustrate me. I can’t see my friends in Canton or Ann Arbor without borrowing a car from my busy parents. I can’t walk to the grocery store or bike safely to the nearest rail-trail. There is no pedestrian traffic to enliven the center of my hometown. There is no center of my hometown. The many lakes scattered about Waterford provide some semblance of public space, but that’s only by nature’s fortuitous accident. Thoughtless sprawl has left huge blemishes like the empty Summit Place Mall in Pontiac on our landscape:




Having been spoiled by transportation options in other places, it seems so obvious to me where Michigan should be putting its resources: into a robust rail and bus system that would seamlessly connect Detroit and its suburbs, zoning laws that encourage mixed-use, infill & pedestrian friendly development, traffic calming measures, and green infrastructure.

SEMCOG echoes these observations in their 2040 Regional Transportation Plan:

“One of the guiding principles of the Plan is that transit service in the region must be significantly improved in order to attract the same levels of ridership that exists in thriving metropolitan areas across the country. There are several reasons for this principle including: the need to attract and retain young professionals, the need to connect people to jobs, and the need to address the challenges presented by a rapidly increasing elderly population.”

I’m happy to see that SEMCOG is making some inroads here with M1 and the Detroit-Ann Arbor commuter rail. But when the same agency approves a $4 billion dollar highway-widening project for I-94 and I-75, I question their commitment to such a vision.



I hear MDOT leadership saying that “expansion” is a mischaracterization of the project. If that’s the case, why are lanes being added to these highways? Michigan’s population, jobs and vehicle miles driven have all fallen over the last decade and multiple studies have shown that widening roads does not ease congestion.

What will the price of gas be in 5, 10, 20 years? At what point will driving become a financially crippling choice? For 25% of Detroiters, it already is: they don’t own cars despite the poor service provided by the region’s bus system. Energy prices are sure to rise in the years ahead. Our current system isn’t designed for this unavoidable scenario, and yet MDOT and SEMCOG continue to spend precious resources propping it up.

SEMCOG has pointed out that Metro Detroit ranks 22nd out of 25 metro areas in terms of transit operating funds and 23rd in transit service. Now that we have a regional transit authority, we have a great opportunity to re-define our future.

As a Millennial and an expat from Southeast Michigan, I want to add my voice to the scores of residents who have already movingly expressed their opposition to the I-94 and I-75 projects. This region is in desperate need of a new transportation paradigm, one that matches the vibrancy of its people and natural resources, and these highway projects will only delay that vision, at great social and financial cost. Please reconsider going ahead with this development.

Sincerely,

Erica

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Climate Ride Training Update #4

Climate Ride Training Update Week 15: Michigan
Miles: 30


My dad has lived in the same town his whole life. But when I took him biking on the nearby rail-trail last year, he was surprised he had missed something in his own backyard. I suspect it's the same for many people in auto-centric Southeast Michigan. My mom and I encountered very few people on yesterday's ride on the Macomb-Orchard Trail that runs from busy, suburban Rochester Hills to rural Richmond 25 miles away. It's a shame because many of the trail amenities were nicer than those I've encountered around DC: benches and info boards with maps at nearly every intersection, tire pumps (in Rochester Hills), and bathrooms (!) every few miles.

Sprawling SE Michigan is not a very friendly place for cyclists or pedestrians (Paul Krugman and one of my favorite bloggers Angie Schmitt - even suggest that Detroit's persistent problems are primarily the result of sprawl). I commend the cheery soul on an adult cargo trike I saw Sunday morning pedaling along the vast Northwood Shopping Center parking lot by Woodward Ave. in Royal Oak, and the lonely figure traversing another vast (and empty) parking lot by the Summit Place Mall (a dead mall) in Pontiac. In this place that continues to be wholeheartedly designed for cars, a few (often by necessity) doggedly get around without one.

Try riding a bike here
Still, there are some bright spots. Michigan has the most rail-trail miles in the country. Detroit's bike (and bike manufacturing) scene is growing. Some of the inner-ring suburbs (like Royal Oak) are adding bike lanes. Blogs like ModeShift and Rust Wire are challenging the status quo and imagining a better future for the region. It's not enough to undo the damage, but maybe one day our built environment will aspire to the beauty of the state's unparalleled natural environment.

Swamp forest on the eastern end of the Clinton River Trail

Peaches in Romeo

Beginning of the Macomb Orchard Trail, on the mountain bike I got when I was about 15 years old

Chicory and Loostrife? 

Mom checking the info board in Washington Township

Romeo

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Climate Ride Training Update #3

Climate Ride Training Update Week 11: Sligo Creek
Miles: 80-ish

Sligo Creek Trail: Winding, Narrow and Forested

I've been lax on the training updates; actually on training in general after a bout of food poisoning a few weeks ago. But as soon as I started feeling better, I got back in the saddle. My roommate and training buddy Audrey is in Nebraska and Colorado for two weeks, but my fellow Climate Rider Danny has also been hitting the trails, so I joined him on Friday for a 25-mile ride near his home in Silver Spring, MD on Sligo Creek Stream Valley Trail.

The trail runs about about 11 miles between Wheaton, MD and Bladensburg, MD, ending at the Anacostia River.

Compared to the Capital Crescent, this trail is pretty quiet. It also requires more attention because of the constant turns and narrow, bumpy surface.

The trail runs alongside, you guessed it, Sligo Creek (which flows into the Anacostia, and eventually the Potomac). But rather than stick to one side of the creek, the trail frequently hops back and forth across the creek over many wooden bridges.

I suspected the name hearkens to the Irish county of the same name and the ever-reliable Wikipedia confirms this:

"Sligo Creek was named after the crossroads named "Sligo" founded in the mid 19th century by Irish immigrant workers on the C&O Canal. "

John Fahey, a DC musician, also wrote a song about the creek. Covered here by Devendra Banhart, it makes the creek sound lazier than it actually is:



My riding buddy Danny happens to be the Legislative Director for Citizens Climate Lobby, one of the organizations we're raising money for. Along with our friend Sieren and two other Climate Riders, we're hoping to collectively raise $12,000 for CCL. Your donation has already got us to 45% of our goal, so thanks! CCL is also going to be training people during the Climate Ride about how they can make an impact when they visit over 100 Congressional offices at the conclusion of the ride in DC. I interviewed Danny in June at the CCL conference where he talked about why it's so important to put a price on carbon and what it's like to lobby Congress on climate change:



Back to the ride:

One of the trail's ubiquitous little bridges

Danny on Sligo Creek Parkway

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Climate Ride Training Update #2

Climate Ride Training Week 3: Taking the Long Way Home
Miles: 58


The Washington & Old Dominion (W&OD) was my bike path when I lived in Reston, VA. It stretches 45 miles from Arlington to Purcellville in the west. I don't get on this trail much anymore now that I live closer to Maryland, but yesterday morning's overcast skies seemed like good conditions for a trek back to my old  haunts.

Well, it got sunny fast and I'd forgotten how shadeless the path was. I'd lathered on the sunscreen before I left but I could sense it wearing off in the relentless afternoon sun. In Falls Church I rode up beside a couple and asked how much further to Vienna (my goal for the day). They took pity on my pasty skin and stopped to let me use their sunscreen and we chatted about cycling. One of the things I love about riding a bike is the lack of a barrier between people - it's easy to fall into conversations with random folks.

20 miles after heading out, I made it to the Vienna Whole Foods where I gorged on the food bar and put on more sunscreen from the free testers in the body department. Then I turned around and headed back. While I was tired, the trip back to Arlington was more pleasant: it sloped gradually downhill and the trees cast long shadows on the path. I accidentally took Four Mile Run Trail rather than hoping on the Custis Trail, adding another 8 or so miles to my trip. It turned out to be a nice mistake though: the light on the Potomac is beautiful in the evening.

Vienna, VA
Vienna
The Beltway: DC ring highway symbolically separating "Real America" and the bureaucrats (so they say)

Four Mile Run Trail in Arlington, VA
Back on the Mt. Vernon Trail
Rosslyn, VA from Georgetown. On the homestretch.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Climate Ride Training Update #1

Hello there, Miyata. Name suggestions welcome.
Climate Ride Training Week 1
Miles: 35

Was sitting in my work cube two weeks ago when an email from Green America popped up inviting me to join the Climate Ride in September. I'd watched these cyclists bike into town from NYC for a few years but never thought to try the ride myself. The notion of biking 300 miles and raising $2400 sounded daunting, but I've found in the past that when I push through fears, life is richer on the other side. So I signed up.

My mom (visiting from Michigan) and housemate Audrey were my training buddies this week. Mom is a little obsessed with airplanes, so on Monday we biked 11 miles from my house in Tenleytown to Gravelly Point Park in Arlington, VA. This might be the best place to plane-spot in the country: it's situated on the Mt. Vernon Trail right next to Reagan Airport. Every few minutes, you feel like Carey Grant in Hitchcock's North by Northwest as planes dive in your direction before touching down on the runway a few hundred feet away. It's slightly terrifying. Mom was giddy and took lots of pictures:


I had gotten a new (old) road bike off Craigslist the week before: a lilac Miyata 712 from 1987, so I zipped ahead of mom riding my Diamondback hybrid, "Bertha", with the panniers loaded on it. Poor mom, forced to be the packhorse. We had lunch at the airport (they have bike parking!) and checked in for her flight the next day before riding back to the house.

(As a climate-related aside, my colleage Keya Chatterjee at WWF has slammed Congress and the Obama administration for pulling out of the EU's proposed policy to cut carbon emissions from airline travel.)

Today Audrey and I rode through the neighborhoods of upper Northwest DC to Woodley Park where we shared a giant burrito on the grass next to the stately Taft Bridge. The neighborhood was crammed with people enjoying the temperate sunny weather, some Boy Scout convention (kids with whistles), and a psychology association meeting (people with name tags). 

Woodley Park could use more bike parking. People resort to using parking signs and parking meters.
We then wound south through Rock Creek Park and hopped on the Capital Crescent Trail which, true to its name, is shaped like a crescent (croissant?) hugging the city, and the Potomac River. This trail will actually constitute the final leg of the Climate Ride, passing 2 miles from my house! It's also a former rail line, like many of the bike paths around here, and a reason why I'm sending half of the funds I raise to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. You can find out if there's a rail-trail in your region from them here.

Some of the "Cap Cres"

Audrey by the C&O Canal. You can take the gravel path bordering this canal nearly 200 miles to Cumberland, MD (which my friend Seth has done) or further on to Pittsburgh if you wanted!
Audrey riding Bertha through the neighborhood
Stay tuned for Climate Ride training updates throughout the summer. Longer rides await...


Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Going Green is Going Nowhere


green n. a. Lacking sophistication or worldly experience; naive. b. Easily duped or deceived; gullible.

Forgoing Metro, I rode by bike (recently christened "Bertha" by my friend David) to the office yesterday for the first time this year. The traffic in Bethesda was worse than I remembered it, clogging up side streets. The river of cars filled with solo drivers on Little Falls Parkway gushed through traffic lights while I waited to cross. "Why are these people in cars?" I asked myself.

Were these folks magically whisked to the Netherlands, would they simply buy more cars on their arrival because they like them so much? I think a significant portion of them wouldn't. And not because they're inspired to "go green" by the forward-thinking Dutch, but because the system there is designed for bicycles.

The Dutch had to push hard for this system change, and it had only tangential connection to environmentalism: mostly they got fed up with the number of kids dying in car accidents and turned out en masse on city streets to protest the situation. That and cheap gas disappeared. Leaders responded by building bicycle infrastructure and, voila, cycling shot up. Today, about 30% of the country's population gets around exclusively by bicycle. In the US? 2%.

"They're really making bicycling attractive," [International urban affairs professor at Virginia Tech University, Ralph] Buehler said. "People who normally drive, they know it will take five Euros for parking and take 10 minutes more than if they bike."

I bring up this story because an Atlantic Cities article I recently posted on the Citizens Climate Lobby Facebook page sparked a debate about the efficacy of individual vs. collective action. That article, Maggie Koerth-Baker's "Why Your 'Green Lifestyle' Choices Don't Really Matter" argues that all the recycled paper towels and bamboo floors in the country don't hold a candle to changing policy when it comes to building a better world.

I'm with Maggie on this one. And so is Annie Leonard, who makes the same point in her video The Story of Change. Going green, she says, is "like trying to swim upstream when the current is pushing us all the other way".


Many commenters on our Facebook wall took issue with this perspective:

If people do not make green lifestyle choices, those with the political power to make infrastructure changes will not see them as necessary. 

There is very little chance of systems change being implemented without a large push from what is now a "lifestyle" sector. 

It is an ill-conceived logic to decry these choices as ineffective. I think "lifestyle choices" are a powerful tool to point up to others what choices they have made without considering the alternatives. 

Articles with these kinds of titles assist in making people think doing nothing is ok. It's not. We all have to chip in.

I get the idea of personal responsibility, sure. I get around without a car. My roommates and I recycle and buy renewable energy credits for our electricity. But our culture stresses the personal responsibility aspect of environmentalism way too much, to the detriment of much more effective solutions. Lifestyle changes are the only way most people in the US know how to engage in change, and companies comfortable with the status quo are happy to encourage that. But it's a road to ruin, as the absence of strong chemical regulations shows:

Brock noted that she does everything in her power to give her kids a healthy future. However, as she has learned, what a parent can do may not be enough when product labels don't list every chemical ingredient, or when a chemical's safety remains untested. In order to uncover what chemicals were triggering rashes and breathing troubles in her daughters, for example, Brock said she spent a long time "playing detective" with what they were eating and applying to their hair and skin.

In addition to rejecting the "lifestyle" argument by pushing for policy change, scrapping the "green" label might be a good idea too. Witness students involved in the fossil fuel divestment campaign who've understandably become irritated by greenwashing and by being boxed into an esoteric interest group:

Photo: Fossil Free
Environmentalism may have been hijacked by our consumer culture, but maybe it's a blessing in disguise. We've been given the opportunity to redefine ourselves. I hope we'll look around at our neighbors who don't define themselves as "green", link arms, and storm the gates together.