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Per Capita Davis: The toughest nut to crack

By From page A4 | March 21, 2013

The toughest nut to crack: Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is, in some ways, painless and invisible to most of us. Others are doing it for us. If Congress raises miles-per-gallon standards for vehicles, we may or may not pay more for a car (we will pay less for gas), but in terms of our day-to-day lives we don’t have to change our behavior.

Similarly, if regulators require the utilities to increase the percentage of power generated from renewable sources; or require improvements in energy efficiency before construction of new power generating facilities; or set higher efficiency standards for light bulbs, appliances and new buildings; these “upstream” actions reduce our individual greenhouse gas emissions but don’t ask the average person to actually do anything.

Piece of cake, right?

If, on the other hand, we are talking about reducing greenhouse gas emissions in our existing homes and neighborhoods, the mechanisms for doing so generally fall into two categories: reducing “vehicle miles traveled” (how far and how often we drive every day) and retrofitting our homes to be more energy-efficient or installing solar systems on our roofs.

Retrofitting and solar are subsidized, but they still cost money. Measures to reduce vehicle miles traveled generally involve increasing density and simultaneously creating more “mixed use” or neighborhood-scale commercial that provides amenities and daily necessities within walking distance.

Thus far, efforts along these lines to reduce vehicles miles traveled tend to result in a focus by residents on the first part of the equation: increasing density. Whereas setting standards for new neighborhoods is somewhat simpler, it is often a significant paradigm shift to consider messing with existing neighborhoods to increase density by changing the number of homes (adding granny flats, for example), the height of buildings (perhaps to three stories) or the distance between them (zero lot lines).

Planners and policy makers have a tough time arguing with concerned and sometimes angry neighbors that “hey, we need to do this, and by the way you’ll like your neighborhood better if there’s a small coffee shop in the park down the street and much of your daily commercial needs are within a 10-minute walk.”

As hard as it is to make changes to existing neighborhoods, it is very probable that attaining climate action and greenhouse gas reduction goals will necessarily require all of us to adapt our behavior and lifestyle in the future.

But, there are some things that can be done right now to reduce vehicle miles traveled in existing residential areas that are non-controversial and ask people to participate only if they want to. One example is the “Safe Routes to School” program that makes it easier and safer for kids to walk or bike to and from school.

The city of Davis is working with the school district to launch a Safe Routes to School walk and bike audit project to improve walking and biking access to schools for students and their families. Funded by a federal grant, this project aims to make a soup-to-nuts examination of bike and pedestrian access to all elementary and junior high schools.

Are sidewalks cracked and need mending? Are bike paths and crosswalks clearly marked? Do traffic lights give walkers enough time to safely cross? Are cars travelling at a rate of speed that is safe for bikes and walkers? Is there adequate secure bike parking available at schools? Basically, everything related to safe and convenient travel will be evaluated. Measures that cost money will be made “grant ready” for application for funds.

The goal is to dramatically increase the number of students who walk, bike, skate or scoot to school above the current 30 percent level.

Unlike all the “upstream” measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions identified in the first couple paragraphs of this article, participating in the Safe Routes to School walk and bike audit is something we all can do that will have a measurable effect on reducing the vehicle miles traveled in our city. There is no requirement that participants have children currently in the school. You can find out more, or sign up to participate, at http://street-smarts.cityofdavis.org/saferoutes.

The hour is now: On a related note, Cool Davis, that band of intrepid advocates of sustainability, is asking all of us to participate in “Earth Hour” on Saturday from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. This is a the seventh year for this event, organized by the World Wildlife Fund, encouraging everyone to “turn off all non-essential lights and electronics for one hour in a dramatic rolling blackout that moves hour-by-hour around the globe.”

Barbecue instead of using the oven, enjoy a candlelight dinner, forego texting or television, or head outside and take a look at the stars.

The “related note” reference above is to the encouragement for all of us to go beyond this one hour a year and commit to actions to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by, among other things, “greening” our transportation by increasing how often we walk, bike, take a train or bus and car-pool.

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis; his column is published on the first and third Thursdays of each month. Send comments to [email protected]

John Mott-Smith

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