Worldwatch's Sheehan calls for federal action on efficiency and transportation

Local leaders throughout the country are looking to the success of their international counterparts as they try to promote energy efficiency and environmental awareness in the United States. During today's OnPoint, Molly O'Meara Sheehan, senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute and project director of "State of the World 2007: Our Urban Future," discusses global trends in greening urban transportation and energizing cities in efficient and environmentally sound ways. Sheehan discusses the success that many major international cities have had in "greening" their transportation infrastructures and promoting alternative sources of energy.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Molly O'Meara Sheehan, project director of the World Watch Institute's 2007 State of the World Report. Molly thanks for joining me.

Molly Sheehan: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: Broadly speaking, how would you assess the state of the world, relating to energy efficiency and environmental awareness?

Molly Sheehan: Well, to back up a little bit, the State of the World Report for the first time this year, we've been doing this report since 1984 and this was the first year that we focused on urbanization. And I think one of the exciting things, when you look at the state of the world in terms of urbanization is that cities, I think, are really leading the way in terms of energy efficiency and also showing new ways of urban design. Actually, some of them are not so new, but taken from centuries ago, let's say the subway, that are great in terms of energy efficiency and reduced carbon emissions.

Monica Trauzzi: And the report is prefaced with the fact that in 2008 we'll reach a point where more than half the people on the planet will live in cities. Transportation and energy efficiency are two major issues facing cities, as you said. Explain what it means to green urban transportation.

Molly Sheehan: Well, it really depends on where you are and that's the exciting thing and fun thing about cities, is every city is unique. Every city has some kind of history and geography and climate to make it a special place. So wherever you are in the world, what the greening urban transportation means will be a little bit different. But broadly speaking, here in the US, we have lots of cities and urban areas we can point to as things that are not terribly green, places where highways dominate. And I have nothing against highways except that when you do plan urban areas you're basically planning around the car. Where people are going to be able to move around by private vehicles, you just need a lot more space to accommodate those vehicles. And you also need a lot more fuel. So something that would be greener would be greater ability or a greater amount of choices to move around. So a city might have light rail, I mean depending on the size of a city. A large city, a subway system is a great way to get people around. And also, importantly, bicycles are huge and walking, of course. So planning a city so that you have public transportation and also so that you can bike and walk in between where public transportation takes you. And there are great examples of this. Perhaps the United States does not have the most examples, but looking around the world, Europe certainly, Swedish cities, Danish cities with their high levels of bicycling in climates are not necessarily the warmest. You know, that you wouldn't think that it's great to be outdoors all the time in a Dutch city or a Danish city, but because of the priority that's been given to bicycle paths and to public transportation it is actually a great way to get around.

Monica Trauzzi: In a city like New York, for example, where public transportation is plentiful. The subway system there is pretty sizable for the city. You still have thousands of people entering the city with cars and some have no choice, for some that's the only way that they can get to work in the morning. How do you convince citizens in the U.S. that they need to switch from these personal methods of transportation, such as driving their car, to public transportation?

Molly Sheehan: I don't know that people need to be convinced of changing their ways. I think there needs to be options first that are really appealing, that people would want to leave their cars. There are people, I think, who will never be able to leave their, you know, people who are disabled, who need private vehicles. So I don't like the idea of someone using scolding, saying you have to get out of your car because you're ruining the environment. The reality is people have to get to work. They have to go to school. They have to get places. And if where they live there are no other options than driving, what can you do? And what you can do is politics at the local level to change things. And one of the ways that people are doing this is imagining what their whole urban area might look like if they put in a light rail system, if there were more bicycle paths. What visually that would look like. So visioning exercises at the Metropolitan level, where citizens will get together and sort of look at different images, what their city might look like 10 or 20 years from now. What it looks like now with maybe there are streets that are filled with cars. What it might look like in the future. And I think what gives that kind of exercise that's happened in places like Salt Lake City for instance, what gives that some real weight is that those transformations have been made in cities. For instance, in Copenhagen, 30 years ago their streets and a lot of their public squares were just full of cars, if you look at a photo from 30 years ago. Today you look at those same places and you see squares that are full of people, you see bicycles on the streets and it's really as a result of what's called the Finger Plan in Copenhagen. To plan development around the train system so that people could easily get places by train as well as then biking from place to place.

Monica Trauzzi: It really seems like many European cities, like you mentioned earlier, have been really successful in greening their urban transportation. Do you think there's a different mentality in Europe versus the US when it comes to sustainability and helping the environment?

Molly Sheehan: Well, I think there's a different history of urbanization. Cities in Europe tend to be older, so they were set up before the advent of the car. So we, in the US, many of our cities, especially out in the West and the South, they were built around the car and that's just the reality. I think what's inspiring is if you look south from the US to Latin America, where you have cities, also many of them have been experiencing most of their growth in recent years, so it's not like they were built around streetcars. But you see cities in Latin America that don't have that much money and they're investing in bus rapid transit. The first pioneer of this was in Curitiba, Brazil, which also was about 30 years ago, started what's called a Bus Rapid Transit system, which is basically like a subway on the surface and they set aside the right-of-ways for that. If you look at even pictures from 30 years ago, the system looks incredibly futuristic with these glass tubes that people wait in as they're waiting for the bus. And because the tube is at the same level as the bus the bus doesn't have to stop that long for people, they enter at the same level and also the dedicated lanes that can go faster. So you have the speed of a subway, close to the efficiency and comfort of one at a fraction of the cost. And that model is now, Curitiba was a relatively small city and people discounted this for many years. Saying, well, there was a military dictatorship when this started. That sort of simplifies the politics, if you have someone saying this is what we're going to do. But in the much larger city of Bogota, Colombia, a city of some 8 million people the mayor there, about a decade ago, instituted a car free day. Then he started to build more bike paths and then also launched a system, a bus system similar to Curitiba's, but it overcame some of the bottlenecks in that system, which the main one was the bus stop where buses would back up at rush hour. The Bogotá system not only has the bus lane, but also a passing lane and there are multiple bays so the buses can stop. You know, basically the service is very speedy and this is in a very large city.

Monica Trauzzi: You mentioned action, government action on the local level. I'm interested in hearing what you think Congress should be doing in order to move this along in the U.S.?

Molly Sheehan: Yes, I think the leadership is coming from cities because that's where there's the demand for cleaner air, for more options. One of the sort of landmark things in this country was the ISTEA legislation, followed by TEA-21, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, I think, and then the Transportation Equity Act. What these laws did was to start giving communities more access to federal money for things other than highways. And we would love to see more of that happen and would like to see sort of the leadership that cities have shown as well as some state governments, for instance, the State of California, to see that replicated at the national level.

Monica Trauzzi: We're seeing a big push for green building. It's a trend that really seems to be growing, especially in recent years. Currently there are many individual projects, not necessarily a master plan in cities around the country. Do you think it would be beneficial to create these community-based plans for green building and green structures?

Molly Sheehan: Yeah, green building is also something that there's phenomenal potential. You asked about the US, but first I just have to mention the amount of construction that's going on right now in industrializing nations and urban centers of China and India. Beijing actually is booming in preparation for the Olympics, but also Shanghai last year, or in 2005. In 2005 alone the amount of buildings that went up in Shanghai, in just one year, were equal to all of the office space in New York City. So when you think of the amount of construction now that's taking place, whole huge amounts of urban habitat that are going up, and there's the opportunity now to build green. I think that there's just tremendous opportunity in those countries, also in the US. Cities here are also tremendously dynamic.

Monica Trauzzi: And it can happen on a large scale.

Molly Sheehan: It can happen on a large ...

Monica Trauzzi: Not just individually, building by building.

Molly Sheehan: Right.

Monica Trauzzi: The report pushes renewables as a great method to energize cities. I'm just wondering, are we ever going to get to the point where we can energize entire cities on renewables? Are we always going to need those fossil fuels to energize large cities like New York and Washington, D.C.?

Molly Sheehan: I guess it depends on what renewable energy you're talking about and how technology progresses. But one of the things you consider with solar energy is where your city is. Every city has its own geography and climate, so some cities are really well positioned for solar power. Some are really well positioned for wind power. Unfortunately, these are intermittent so you're going to need something else and people have been talking about hydrogen as perhaps generated from some other renewable source to be used as, the hydrogen fuel cell, for instance, in your basement. So there's lots of building, scale technologies that have great potential. To give you one example of what could happen, again, to go back to China, just as a place where there's so much construction going on now. In a very small city called Reijoa, in northeast China, which has a lower per capita income than other cities in that region, 99 percent of that city is now powered, or gets its heat and hot water from solar power. So you can imagine a city getting a large share of its energy from renewable resources. Again, some of the exciting developments are in Scandinavia. There's a new section in the city of Malmo, in Sweden, where 100 percent of the energy that's used by the residents there is generated locally, so from solar panels on the buildings and bio-gas, for instance. Their wastewater is collected at the neighborhood level and then its pipe back into the apartment so people can use it for cooking on their stoves.

Monica Trauzzi: Well, this is all very interesting stuff. Unfortunately, we're out of time.

Molly Sheehan: OK.

Monica Trauzzi: So we're going to have to end it on that note. Thanks for joining me.

Molly Sheehan: Great, thank you so much.

Monica Trauzzi: This is OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Thanks for watching.

[End of Audio]



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