Sustainable Sheep Herding

The city has held a series of “Sustainable Madison Community Forums.” I went to the first one on Thursday, October 22, 2009.

It wasn’t promising.

The foremost problem: we got talked at. The entire meeting was structured to shut up and shut out thoughtful community input. And in the Atwood neighborhood, where you’ve got the highest concentration of environmental activists & practitioners in the country (enviro organization EDs, the Geo/Enviro Professoriate, sustainable design professionals, enviro rabble rousers of every stripe, etc.), shutting up & shutting out is just bad public policy. The city has a lot to learn from these folks. To shut them up is just unacceptable.

Madison’s environmental brain trust turned out in droves to this meeting. We had the leading lights of Sustainable Architecture, Alt-trans, Hydrogeology, Renewable energy, etc., et cetera, et cetera. Unfortunately, not only was the forum designed to minimize citizen input, when people tried to break through the input-stifling format, the Chair of the Sustainable Design and Energy Committee actually shouted them down. Sherrie Gruder is a problem. More on that in a moment.

At least 2/3 of the meeting time was scheduled for dog & pony shows.  City staff & the UW Planning Dept’s Doogie Howsers laid out state of the art sustainability, ca. 1979. That is to say, the “presentations” consisted of nibbling-around-the-edges sustainability initiatives undertaken by the city to date. It was a laundry list of 1970s-era ideas such as solar panels & LEED design criteria. (There was no mention of what level of LEED was attained; my guess is that they are all at the Silver Level, something that you can attain by just following the state building code plus a green gew-gaw here & there. In other words, nothing to brag about here.)

The URPL students regurgitated their planning 101 textbooks. Again, nothing new for the brains getting talked at.

The people doing the talking at were in their little boxes and had little in the way of imaginative, low/no-cost green measures that could get right to the heart of sustainability. And the heart of the sustainability issue is energy. 80% of sustainability is energy. There simply is no getting around it. Energy use is entropy.* That is to say, our energy gluttony is the root cause of the vast majority of our environmental destruction, lack of sustainability.

And the sustainability issue at the heart of the matter: Paving for the Deathmobile.

Practically every aspect of sustainability comes back to this.

Water quality? Guess what caps off aquifer recharge more than any other impervious surface? Paving for the deathmobile.

Guess what the #1 use of land in Madison is? Paving for the deathmobile.

Guess what the #1 use of paving is? Moving & storing deathmobiles (roads, storage, a.k.a. parking).

Urban heat island effect’s #1 contributor? Paving for the deathmobile. (See the above #1 use of land.)

Energy use city wide? #1 consumer of energy is transportation. The #1 consumer of transportation energy? The deathmobile.

Guess what the # 1 mode of transportation in Madison is? The most inefficient form of transportation ever devised: the deathmobile.

CO2 emissions? #1 source in Madison: deathmobile.

Madison risks becoming an EPA designated dirty air zone (‘non-attainment’ as they say in bureau-speak). Where are these smog forming compounds coming from? #1 source: deathmobile. (Yes, including that deathmobile that you ‘never’ drive. How so? Fuel evaporating from fuel injectors & the fuel line creates volatile organic compounds (precursors to smog); this process is responsible for upwards of 20% of smog forming compounds.)

Budget constraints preventing implementation of green ideas? Guess what the #1 single item on the city budget is? Supporting the deathmobile. From road paving, repair, maintenance, street sweeping & snow plowing to police & fire & ambulance services dedicated to cleaning up after car crashes, there is no other single item in the city budget that costs more than, yup, the deathmobile. Furthermore, every budget during the green mayor’s tenure has included double digit increases in paving budgets.

Why not boost alternatives to the deathmobile? Well, the most obvious transportation alternative is transit. Rail transit is 8X more efficient than the deathmobile. Bus service is 4X more efficient. When you factor in the land use efficiencies of transit-oriented-development (i.e., density, mixed-use, all scaled to walking & biking), the efficiencies become incalculably large. Priceless as it were. But this mayor has repeatedly slashed bus service and jacked fares to the point that he is leaving people — literally — at the bus stop. His pro-sprawl policies undermine any hope for a transit/walking/biking future.

The budget squeeze brought on by the deathmobile. The 2009 budget included a whopping 60% increase in paving. Mayor Pave calls paving his “capital” budget, and claims that it is distinct from the operating budget (from which transit draws the funds it needs to run). But every year, as the mayor piles on debt to build bigger highways, the service on that “capital” debt becomes more & more burdensome on the operating budget. Yes, debt service on capital expenditures is put onto the operating budget. So yes, he commingles capital and operating funds. The effect: When the mayor was elected, debt service was in the single digits as a percentage of the operating budget; by 2009, that had risen to 11%. The recently passed 2010 budget is 12%. The comptroller predicts that by 2013 it will be 17%. That means a squeezed operating budget for decades. That means more cuts & fare jackings to the bus system forevermore.

Paving. Deathmobility. The Siamese twin elephants in the room the Sustainable Design and Energy Committee fails to look at.

Instead, all we get is braggadocio for all that nibbling around the edges.

Those nibbled edges.

Every ounce of carbon prevented by each solar panel ever installed by the mayor has been cancelled out by orders of magnitude thanks to his decision to jack up bus fares to pay for his paving debt service. Why? Because, in his years of jacking fares and cutting bus service he has decimated bus ridership. That ridership often shifts to cars.

Furthermore, it is likely that every watt generated by his groovey-green gizmo solar panels has been canceled out by the increase demands for air conditioning thanks to the increased ‘heat island’ effect of the paved area of Madison he has increased. And whatever emissions reductions are achieved by those groovey-green hot water panels will have been canceled out by the increase in smog forming compounds emitted from parked cars on hot paved parking lots baking in the sun. (Yes, Virginia, some 20% of volatile organic compounds — i.e., smog forming compounds — come from parked cars.)

So until the city takes the paving/deathmobile complex seriously, there will be no sustainability.

Yet in all of the city’s discussion of sustainability, there is no mention of the paving/deathmobile complex as a root problem.

City’s spending on sustainability, is being overwhelmed by the negative effects of paving & other deathmobile promotion. Instead of spending more on complicated technical solutions toward sustainability, the city could be spending less while promoting sustainability to a much greater degree. Indeed SDEC, the mayor, our alders, are all missing the obvious, Occam’s Razor-esque approach: Obviate the need for yet more energy.

The Great Energy Obviation: A Kyoto Paving Protocol.

The idea: Set the city on a glide path down from automobility and upward toward cool place making. That is, immediately set the city on a paving limit which, on a per capita basis would amount to the same paving per capita as Madison had as of 1990, then subtract 10%. That should be the goal of the next budget or two. Then, set city policies to achieve the same numbers for driving: per capita ‘vehicle miles traveled” (VMT) as of 1990, minus 10%. For budgets 3-5 years out, subtract another 25%. Continue on that trajectory until we are on target to reduce carbon emissions to achieve an atmospheric CO2 composition of 350 ppm.

Some salient measures to achieve these goals:

  • Increase bus service, decrease fares.
  • Plan for the grid for all new developments. The only pattern of development which has been conclusively shown to actually increase walking and biking is grid-patterned development. Transit also needs the grid to be effective. The grid. Boring? If you let it be (take a trip to Manhattan or the fun ‘hoods of Chicago for examples of a non-boring grid development!). Effective at providing access for all, regardless of mode of transportation? Definitely.
  • TWLTLs. Convert all 4-lane city highways to two-way-left-turn roads (one lane each direction, center turn lane) with bike lanes.
  • Bus transit lanes. Convert one lane to dedicated bus lanes on all existing 6+ lane highways in the city.
  • The high cost of free parking. Expand smart parking meters to more parts of the city, and implement yield-managment algorithms to increase prices at peak times and reduce prices at off-peak times, and reduce, overall car usage.
  • Pro-neighborhood business districts. Return all neighborhood arterials (such as Williamson St., Gorham, Johnson, Monroe St. etc.) to neighborhood business use at all times (i.e., end the rush hour parking restrictions).
  • Bicycle Boulevards. Begin designing key streets for reduced through-automobile traffic, and optimize for convenient and enjoyable bicycle traffic.
  • Emphasize Placemaking. Use the savings from reduced paving to create places people want to be a part of. Why placemaking instead of paving for speed? If we begin to create places people don’t want to run away from, then there will be less inducement to run away. As fast as possible. Preferably sealed up in a speeding steel & glass cage. Because right now, we are creating urban spaces so ugly, so scary, that all anyone can think to do is get away. Instead, make places that are cool, fun, interesting, beautiful and people will be more likely to relax where they are, rather than constantly running away from one ugly place to another.
  • Rein in the Engineers. The first step in the placemaking process would be to put competent, committed (to creating cool places) design professionals (place planners, architects, landscape architects, etc.) in charge of the engineers. Portland, OR never got anywhere in terms of sustainable transportation until they did this. For too long this city has been dominated by engineers lording over design professionals. That must be reversed. Places must be for people first. The machinery (cars) so fetishized by engineers must be made subservient to this prime directive: People first.

The Problem with Sustainability in the Public Process.

Prior rounds of input have been largely ignored by SDEC as well as city government at large. In 2003-4 there was a similar sustainability public process. Input from the general public was openly disdained by the chair of SDEC  (again, Sherrie Gruder).

Then, when the city opened the public process for the City Comprehensive Plan (2005?), staff’s boilerplate language predominated, and public input was largely shunted aside. This was a major opportunity to codify sustainability into every aspect of city policy — from transportation to planning to water & sewer policy. Many of us submitted detailed comment that, if implemented would have set us on a sustainability path.

This round of ‘public participation’ is looking to be similarly pro-forma. Indeed, it was so clear that the chair of the SDEC, Sherrie Gruder was so adamant about excluding public input, that I decided early on to submit my comment online, as suggested by the coversheet handed out at the October 22 forum. Here is what it said:

“To partake in providing input if you can’t attend in person and to learn more about Sustainability[sic], go to www.cityofmadison/sustainability/community “

I did. There is no medium for providing input. None. Once again, public input faces a dead end.

At some point, city leadership should mature into “idea input machines.” Even criticism should be seriously considered. If, under scrutiny of a rigorous energy/sustainability cost-benefit analysis, it proves beneficial, then it should be assimilated into policy. Neither the personality of the messenger, nor the personality of the receiver of the message nor the style of delivery of the message should have any bearing on the validity of any idea in the final analysis.

To understand how successful this new attitude toward governing could be, consider this quote from Bill Gates: “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” Plug that quote into Google and you’ll find a million & one management gurus riffing off of it. The City of Madison in its quest to become more “customer friendly” might take a hint here.

*Entropy, for those who forgot their 7th grade earth science, is destruction of matter. E = MC2. The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. Or, as the Talking Heads put it, “Things fall apart, it’s scientific.”

Note: I have more sustainability ideas that I will post on this blog as time permits.

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