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.