Why the US Needs Smart Cities Ranking

The time has arrived to compare and rank US smart cities as we move into the second greatest techno-cultural wave of the century, after the mobile revolution. Smart cities will digitize and profoundly transform our energy, mobility, water, waste and municipal services, including safety and outreach.

smart citiesClearly, smart cities and its Internet of Things (IoT, along with blockchain, etc.) underbelly will catalyze and energize many sectors of our economy in software, hardware, services and infrastructure.

Ten years ago, I wrote the book How Green is Your City?: The SustainLane US City Rankings, which benchmarked the largest 50 cities in 15 categories of economic and environmental sustainability, as well as climate resilience, and provided an aggregate ranking—from #1 Portland, Oregon to #50 Columbus, Ohio.

Since How Green Is Your City? came out in with its 1,000 data points and three billion media impressions, mayors from Michael Bloomberg of New York (#4 overall), to Richard Daley of Chicago (#6), lauded the study; cities like Houston (#39) formed sustainability departments in reaction; while the national leadership of China asked for guidance on how to similarly measure and rank its cities. Meanwhile, Hurricane Sandy took aim on New York City, and the Paris Climate Accord, approved in 2015, was driven significantly by the participation of the more sustainable cities in national coalitions.

So why embark on a similar ranking for smart cities? As our climate-change impacted and globalized world becomes primarily urban, and with cities as the molten core of financial, political and economic power, we will require the new ability to use sensors to provide Big Data, and then there must be responses based upon artificial intelligence.

The need for smart cities has long been evident. The Bay Area consultancy I founded, Common Current, has worked globally since 2008 with smart city issues regarding water, infrastructure, transportation, air quality, buildings and energy. Through government and private sector clients in the United States, I have addressed national, urban and industry leaders throughout Asia as well as the European Union, and a French national ministry session on achieving net zero buildings at COP 21 in Paris.

Clearly there is acute interest in smart cities, especially in Europe and Asia. The present field of US smart cities is highly active, but it is also fragmented and opaque, just as US cities were in sustainability a decade ago.

For smart cities, Common Current has been tracking developments in more than 25 large US cities so far, from Google’s Sidewalk Labs and the Vulcan mobility project in Columbus, Ohio (Columbus, Ohio, won a $40 million US Department of Transportation grant for last year’s Smart Cities Challenge), to Comcast’s new wide area networks for sensors in Chicago, the Bay Area and Philadelphia.

Unlike Singapore or Barcelona on the international level, there is no clear smart city leader in the United States. There are many participants and key early projects: San Diego (LED street lighting platform), Boston (smart intersection), San Francisco (smart parking), New York (smart microgrid), Cincinnati (smart sewers), Atlanta (AT&T cross-sector framework), Los Angeles (smart poles for lighting and broadband), Louisville (the grassroots “Louie Lab”), and Kansas City (Smart City Streetcar Corridor).

The goal of the US Smart Cities Ranking is to cover the largest 50 cities by population with a unified research methodology and survey project, rank the cities in each category and overall, and to publish the results in an open-source format.

Through involvement with technology, infrastructure and financing entities in smart cities, we may have some biases, but transparency and consistent data values will be evident, as it was with the rankings in How Green Is My City? Former Seattle Sustainability Director Steve Nicholas, vice president of Climate and Environmental Programs at the Institute for Sustainable Communities, said, “I’ve been in the sustainability business for 15 or 20 years now. And these types of rankings have been tried dozens and dozens of times and this in my opinion is the best one in terms of its rigor and how much care they’ve given to apples-to-apples comparisons. A lot of that comes from Warren’s commitment.”

To be clear, creating a study on the scale that the US Smart City Rankings necessitates requires resources for primary research, travel, networking, data analysis and results dissemination. Thus, Common Current invites sponsorship from large smart city players, including Global 1000 brands such as AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, IBM, Cisco, Deloitte, Intel, GE, Audi, Google, Microsoft and others, including the financial services, real estate and insurance industries.

With any benchmarking a central issue is effectively defining the universe: besides the activities in the cities themselves, what are smart city categories, their components and services, and emerging trends? How can performance measures best be applied to discrete categories? These answers will provide valuable insights and data, perhaps even more valuable than the results of the overall smart cities ranking.

Most importantly, benchmarking US smart cities by defined categories will enable city and market participants to move forward with a clearer sense of thoroughness and standards by which to measure innovation as well as general progress. Just as 2007 was the right time for US cities to have a template by which to guide their leadership in the sustainable economy and world politics, 2017-2018 is the right time for US cities and their partners to embark upon becoming global forces in smart technologies, management and economics.

I hope you’ll agree about the need for US Smart City Rankings. Please send inquiries to me:

warren (at) commoncurrent.com

regarding the US Smart Cities Rankings, which will be under development through 2018.

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US needs White House Climate Change Council to protect lives and economy

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With the Zika virus spreading in Florida, it’s timely to consider how we will prepare for our increasing real-time manifestations of climate change. Once thought to be a threat in the distant future, the impacts of climate change are becoming more evident through events such as ongoing drought, extended severe heat waves, coastal and inland flooding and now possibly through what the CDC is calling an unprecedented insect transmission of a birth defect.

The year 2016 is on track to become the earth’s warmest year by a significant margin, with July 2016 being the hottest month ever recorded. Besides experiencing “Black Swan” events that might be tied to climate change (like the spreading of Zika), we have witnessed over the past year record numbers of drought-induced wildfires and deadly 1,000-year inland flood events from “rain bombs” in states such as West Virginia, Maryland and the cities of Houston, Baton Rouge and Columbia, SC.

Our public health and safety institutions, along with infrastructure, already outmoded and in need of repair, simply can’t keep up with the developing threats and pressures. It’s time for a more thorough assessment of climate change’s advancing impacts with a measured response of planning for additional resources, new technologies, public safety protocol, workforce development, as well as international and domestic security.

Without a doubt, the United States needs to further the Obama Administration’s comprehensive climate change mitigation with its national Clean Power Plan and become the world’s first clean-energy superpower. As essential as they are, mitigation actions are only one prong of critical over-arching policy and action needed. The other prong is to concurrently make our society, the economy and public institutions more resilient, and adaptive, to the disruptions and shocks resulting from an unstable climate.

The new president could help the nation better manage climate change risk by creating a cross-agency national Climate Change Security Council or National Resilience Council based in the White House. This council, for which retired US Marine Col. James Seaton and I are advocating, would be similar in structure to the White House National Economic Council or the National Security Council, the NSC. Seaton was an NSC staff member during the Bill Clinton administration.

The new national Climate Change Council would coordinate and prioritize domestic protection as well as foreign humanitarian and national security-related planning for climate change resilience across cabinet-level federal agencies. Key agencies would include Homeland Security and other major departments: particularly Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Education, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Defense, Commerce and Labor. The Department of Energy, which is increasingly being tasked with climate change mitigation, would also participate in adaptation planning, particularly around the vulnerability of the nation’s power grid to climate change.

Because climate change has a delayed impact from carbon emissions, we are only now experiencing the regional and local impacts of global emissions from decades earlier. How would the a White House Office of Climate Change Security start making our cities, regions and industries more able to cope with climate change’s apparent accelerating impacts?

The Obama administration has made a good start on climate change security with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Resilience Toolkit and climate change directives that every federal agency was ordered last month to consider. Canada has already created a Ministry of Climate Change and the Environment and its duties include climate change adaptation.

Looking beyond the Obama legacy, how do major US presidential candidates stack up on this critical issue?

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump denies the existence of climate change, a stance taken by no other world leaders after 195 nations formally adopted the Paris Climate Change Agreement in 2015, an agreement that Trump says he will not honor if elected president. This stance would endanger our national and international security.

Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has acknowledged the need for climate change mitigation; her campaign’s platform on climate change resilience or security is limited to the following declaration: “Clinton will work to ensure that federal infrastructure investments are resilient to both current and future climate risks, and she will partner with states, cities and rural communities to develop regionally coordinated, resilient infrastructure strategies.”

The incoming administration would be prudent to acknowledge that the nation’s current built environment and institutions were not designed for climate change’s increased stresses. From streets to utility sewer, power and water systems, the world’s increasingly urban population is living in cities and buildings that were designed for an era of greater resource availability, and for more benign, less volatile climate conditions.

Perhaps most critically needed is a massive program to plan metro area green infrastructure, to cool soaring urban temperatures and reduce destructive flash flood damages by capturing rainwater for storage and reuse in engineered, climate resilient landscapes. In urbanized or suburban areas, green infrastructure can include parks, transit and road rights of way, even rooftops, yards and parking lots. Green infrastructure reduces water consumption through stormwater capture and reuse, which can also significantly cut energy consumption.

The new council could champion preserving and restoring the eco-system services carried out by coastal barrier islands, wetlands, and forests. Wetlands and estuaries, for instance, provide habitat for wildlife while buffering coastal storm surges and inland flooding.

As mentioned, the energy sector and particularly our national power grid is unprepared for climate change. An influential 2014 report on the financial risks of climate change in the United States, Risky Business, estimated that the United States will require 95 Gigawatts of more power over the next 5 to 25 years to account for energy demand from climate change—equivalent to 200 more power plants. There’s also the specter of flooding, severe storms and heat waves damaging generation, capacity and transmission.

New more-resilient energy and water systems will need to be “smart”, able to use artificial intelligence, a field of scientific innovation being led by Google and others.

Smart energy systems reduce demand before critical energy generation limits are breached by climate stresses. These systems will require renewable and other energy-powered microgrids combined with battery storage to “island” affected areas from extreme weather precipitated grid failures. A White House-level council could scale these best practices at home through the Department of Labor and abroad through the Department of Commerce.

Climate change security would create positive economic impact. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of jobs could be created through the replacement of aging and outmoded grey infrastructure with smart systems and urban green infrastructure, and through planning and constructing storm barriers and constructed wetlands. Restoration of wetlands, aquatic, riverine and estuarine ecosystems accounted for $3.2 billion in revenues and 40,000 jobs in 2013. Smart microgrids, resilient water systems and energy efficiency improvements are other big domestic job creators that can save lives during the most pressing climate-influenced events.

Numerous isolated examples of climate resilience practices already exist. These best management practices can be adapted to local climate, cultural and economic needs and replicated throughout the nation. Resilience skills and technologies will also be critical to our helping other countries faced with even more daunting climate change precipitated disasters.

Los Angeles is trying to recharge its aquifers by capturing stormwater in parking lots, streets and medians to recharge its drinking water aquifer. The city’s Department of Water and Power has utilized GIS-based 3-D imaging and cost-benefit analyses for its extensive properties, demonstrating how local rainwater can be economically captured to recharge the city’s underground water aquifers. Much of the city now depends almost entirely on faraway mountain range snowmelt that because of ongoing drought is already being reduced by climate change.

New Orleans, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco are reinventing themselves with multi-purpose public recreational-rainwater retention space in order to temper the more severe heat waves, floods and storm surges becoming more common. College campuses like the University of California at San Diego are using advanced innovation like microgrids with renewable energy sources to head off grid failures from climate change stresses while incubating exciting new smart technologies that save money for the campus and state taxpayers.

More fully-realized climate security solutions are being advocated by a number of organizations, including the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program; The Skoll Foundation Global Threats Program; the Natural Resources Defense Council’s push for green infrastructure; and the Post Carbon Institute’s community resilience program, as well as IBM, ESRI and others in the private sector.

But these efforts need to be scaled up and integrated with national planning, financing and job training.

Climate change security’s sphere of influence extends far beyond national policy at home. The World Bank said in a recent report that Asian cities in particular are “dangerously unprepared” for climate change risks like increased flooding and storm damage. Indeed, as the Department of Defense has indicated going back to the early 2000s, climate threats to food and water security—think Syria–are a serious issue for the defense of our allies and the world order (link added after Sept. 14 publication of bi-partisan US military “Climate and Security” report).

Domestic climate change security efforts have bi-partisan support. Moderate Republicans and independents in Florida are now demanding action to protect against climate change, including urban planning and infrastructure to adapt to sea level rise.

Fortunately, we don’t have to make a trade-off with climate mitigation to reduce near-term climate change threats, risks and damages. We can and should continue the push to a Net Zero carbon economy to stave off the worst effects of future climate change. It behooves us as a species and nation to figure out how to adapt to climate change and how to steward the earth in the face of this existential threat.

Timely creation of a White House Climate Change Security Council would provide prioritized and coordinated solutions across federal agencies, as well as state and local government, to help make us better prepared and more secure for an uncertain and vastly different future.

(photo: Midnight in Manhattan during Hurricane Sandy, by Iwean Bain, New York Magazine)

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UN’s Shanghai Manual Launches to Guide Urban Futures


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A powerful triumvirate,
the United Nations, Bureau International Des
Expositions
and the mayor of Shanghai, released this week the Shanghai Manual:A Guide for Sustainable Urban Development in the 21st Century.This timely (and free!) manual is
aimed at helping leaders of the world’s cities use integrated urban
planning, management, financing and technology to green their
economies and build climate and economic resilience.

“The Shanghai Manual details
the experience and practices of cities across the world in addressing common
challenges and achieving harmonious development…and is therefore of great
theoretical and practical value,” Shanghai Mayor Han Zheng said at
Monday’s launch, according to the Shanghai Daily.

Aimed at a
target readership of mayors and executive leaders of developing nation cities,
the bilingual (English and Chinese) Shanghai
Manual
is the basis for capacity building and training being rolled out in Asia next week by the United Nations. City leaders representing 12 Asian nations will attend the United Nations Center for Regional Development in
Nagoya, Japan, where UN officials and I will lead urban sustainability training
for leaders ranging from Colombo, Sri Lanka, to Karachi, Pakistan,
to Makati (Manila), Philippines. In addition smaller cities including Chiang Mai, Thailand are participating.

Continue reading

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Enabling Future Global Green Cities


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Between 2000 and 2030 the global urban footprint will double,
mostly due to growth in developing nation cities. Urban carbon and resource
impacts cannot, must not double during this period. What can be done by
policymakers, the private sector, civil society and urban leaders to prevent
the unthinkable, a global climate and ecosystem incapable of supporting stable species
populations and food production?

A botched transition to the coming urban future will ensure
stresses far beyond our comprehension.

So, I will be addressing the Global Green
Cities Symposium
in San Francisco Feb. 24 on “Enabling Future Global Green Cities.” In
my previous post I described how this event acknowledges a sense of urgency by taking
a novel approach to expert and cross-industry collaboration.

Clearly, cities in developing nations are the crux of the
matter: 90% of projected urban growth will occur in developing nation metros during the
next decades. By 2040, the developing nation urban sector will benefit from an
estimated total of more than $300 trillion in expenditures for the built
environment and transportation, both in infrastructure and operations. Increasingly
these city functions and services will be optimized to address both climate
change mitigation and climate change adaptation.

Before getting to the how, let’s address the issue of cities
on the basic level of benefits and risks.

Pros of increased urbanism:

  • easier provision of lower-cost high-value services (healthcare, education, water, transportation, communications, commerce)
  • enhanced cultural activities and opportunities
  • urban economic innovation in global hubs benefit their surrounding rural regions, and especially national economies

Cons of increased urbanism:

  • increased pollution and concentration of
    wastes, congestion, urban-heat island effect
  • negative social impacts which can include loss
    of sense of community, isolation from nature and decreased safety and
    security, exacerbated by a large-scale lack of affordable housing
  • sprawled urban borders place natural resources
    (agricultural land, habitat, fisheries, watersheds) at much greater risk

Beyond the pros and cons of urbanization, the populations
and economies of all cities are vulnerable to the increasingly severe impacts
of global climate change, including rising sea levels, flooding, winter storms,
drought and extreme heat events. Besides higher rates of death and
disease from climate change-induced environmental conditions, mass population
migrations are expected to occur in the not-distant future. From New Orleans
to Bangladesh,
urban climate-related population diasporas have already begun.

Cities will need to
quickly begin shifting their spending from high-carbon intensity infrastructure
to green infrastructure that produces very low carbon emissions in production,
transport, implementation and maintenance.

Long-term and strategic action plans will be necessary to
guide capital toward infrastructure solutions offering attractive
returns on investment. Such returns can take many forms–reduced operating costs
(including reuse and disposal), low embodied and operating carbon emissions, lower air
and water pollution levels, and greater resource efficiency.

Global competitiveness may soon be defined in part by comparative carbon
emission rates. Low-carbon urban economies, for instance, will gain a decisive
edge over economies (urban, exurban or rural) that remain relatively heavy
per-capita carbon emitters. This competitive advantage will be gained not only
because of environmental and quality of life factors but also because of the
potential merger of international trade rules and carbon emissions regulations.

The OECD Mayors Roundtable in 2010
recommended that urban policy makers pursue integrated policy in three areas: the adjustment of firms to new sustainability related
business opportunities and energy volatility; enabling individual consumers or citizens to change their preferences
for products and services, and, finally; developing and effectively diffusing green
technologies in the marketplace.

Following are other leading strategies and recommendations
that will be covered in the United Nations “Shanghai Training Manual for
Sustainable Cities”
.
 (In order to be more likely to succeed, multi-sector
collaboration and transparency will be required of each):

  •  New integrated, long-term and multi-scale models
    for structuring, managing, measuring and financing city performance (e.g.,
    World Bank Eco2 Cities program)
    including life-cycle energy/ carbon, maintenance and capital cost management across
    budgets, capital planning and large-scale investments. Early examples include Curitiba,
    Brazil, and a Stockholm industrial district.
  • Mega-region and regional planning approaches,
    including those with “cascaded” micro-planning, such as Greater London (pdf).
  • Community-based natural disaster management, such as the Dhaka example (pdf)
  • Core ICT Planning and Strategy: With e-planning ICT can help cities avoid
    high-carbon land use. Digital technology
    makes it possible for cities to achieve lower carbon emissions from better planning
    and management of infrastructure, buildings, energy and transportation. ICT can
    provide valuable public access in communications and governance, such as Mumbai’s
    e-government
    platform.
  • Public-private partnerships that are well constructed.
    Early examples include South Korea’s Smart Grid 2030,
    and
    China’s Guangdong Province wastewater projects.
    Public-private
    partnership agreements should be part of a transparent public
    process that is beneficial to all parties, especially citizens.
  • “In situ”
    slum upgrading
    , versus indiscriminately tearing down slums. Vulnerabilities must be addressed for those slums that are located in areas
    particularly at risk to climate change, such as flood plains and land subject
    to severe storm erosion. The good news, however, is that
    most urban slums are high
    density, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use, made from recycled material, adaptive
    to changing conditions and can be socially inclusive with strong neighborhood
    social networks.

Green urbanization has the potential to shape the 21st
century as much or more than earlier economic and technological advances. The
key difference between this trend and prior economic waves–transportation,
communications, energy, advanced materials and industrialization–will be the
use of integrated urban system approaches.

Bonafide global green cities will only be
fully realized through combined cultural, managerial and
technological innovation that is constantly guided by the active participation of the civil and
private sectors, academia and government.

Let’s all get busy…

(“World Metro Map” image credit)

Warren
Karlenzig is president of Common
Current
. He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute, strategic adviser to
the Institute for Strategic Resilience and co-author of
a
forthcoming United Nations manual on global sustainable city planning and
management. 
 

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Global Green Cities Preview


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From Singapore’s high tech congestion management system to New York’s
PlaNYC 2030 to Yokohama’s zero-carbon emissions goal, the future greening of
cities is becoming our global “Plan A” for survival–economic and
species–and will be the topic of the “Global Green Cities” conference in San
Francisco, Feb. 23-25. The invitation-only event will mash up top planners,
designers, strategists, technologists, mayors and financiers on how design,
technology and behavior can facilitate the cross-fertilization of critical
ideas and perspectives.

By now most have heard that cities will be the century’s
Rosetta Stone to mitigating the resource depletion and carbon emissions of
humanity. China alone will add 400-700 million people to its cities by 2050.
Developing nation urban growth is set to double by 2030 the urban footprint
that existed way back in 2000.

If you are old enough to read these words, you will be living in a whole new world than
the one in which you grew up.

The global cities of 2030 will be created with ten
times the speed it took to cobble together the global cities of 2000, which has
acute sustainability implications. That’s why international organizations
ranging from the United Nations to Natural Resources Defense Council are
feverishly creating strategic plans and training for green city innovation
including energy supply and energy efficiency, land use and planning, green
building, water supply and use, food supply and production, green
infrastructure, and enabling information and communications technologies.

The financial sector is well aware that 90 percent of
urban economic growth will come in developing nations, so the leaders of The
World Bank
, the IMF and private banks and investment firms are scrambling to
integrate financing in a dizzying array of new life-cycle costing instruments,
revenue sharing agreements and public-private partnerships.

Consider Guangzhou’s new bus rapid transit system (photo above, Karl Fjelstrom), now the
largest in Asia, or Mexico City’s Metrobus system. Both were supported by
private foundations, while Mexico City’s Metrobus also garnered support from an
international and Mexican non-governmental organization. Green economic innovation
is not just occurring in developing nation cities. San Francisco was able to
achieve a leadership role in solar energy projects through a voter-supported
bond measure, while Berkeley created its groundbreaking residential PV solar
financing program through a mortgage-like approach that cuts costs
and financial risks for homeowners.

Global Green Cities will host breakout sessions on the:

  • design of livable, compact, transit oriented
    cities;
  • technologies of digital, efficient and
    low-carbon urban systems;
  • behaviors and lifestyles of the urbanite

A “Breakout Synthesis” will focus on how planning,
technology and behavior can provide a specific vision for the future.

In a wrap-up discussion of the Global Green Cities plenary
session, I will address the issue “Enabling the Green City of the Future,”
which will look at best practices and driving change in finance, policy and
business. On Friday Feb. 25, the conference goes off-site to study planning for
sea level rises caused by climate change. It will also analyze California’s
planning for its landmark state climate change bill of 2006, AB 32, and its
companion, SB 375, a historic land use planning law trying to prevent further
exurban sprawl while enabling denser, transit-oriented development in existing
communities. 

Here’s a preview of who will address the invitation-only
gathering of “Global Green Cities,” which is sponsored by Deutsche Bank, Cisco,
AT&T and the Bay Area Economic Institute and is advised by the London
School of Economics:

Top confirmed speakers include Bruce Katz, of the Brookings
Institute’s Metropolitan Policy Program
 
(recent Time magazine essay and video); Peter Calthorpe–he created the
term “transit-oriented development”–of Calthorpe Associates; Khoo Teng Chye of
the Singapore Public Utilities Board; Kent Larsen, of MIT’s Smart Cities
Changing Places Research Group; Siegfried Zhiqiang Wu, of Shanghai’sTongji University
College of Architect and Planning; James Sweeney, Director of Stanford
University’s Precourt Energy Efficiency Center; Jeffrey Heller of Heller-Manus
Architects
; John Kriken of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; Incheon, South Korea
Mayor Young-gil Song; San Jose, USA Mayor Check Reed and Dmitri Zenghelis, of
the London School of Economics.

Many others are invited, and I will provide another post reviewing this seminal symposium.

One last sober observation. By all appearances, there
appears to be no “Plan B.”

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current. He is a fellow at the
Post-Carbon Institute, strategic adviser to the Institute for Strategic Resilience and co-author of
a forthcoming United Nations manual on global sustainable city planning and management. 
 

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Mountain Biking, Teens and Suburban Cultural Shifts

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Yesterday, Sir Francis Drake High School, from suburban San Francisco, took the California State Mountain Biking Championship. The teenage girls and boys (my son is one of them) beat dozens of competing schools from around the state in a series of four dirt races.

What do suburban teen mountain bikers have to do with urban sustainability? If we are to successfully transform our metro areas into being more sustainable and healthier, it will require sweeping cultural changes in suburbia as well as in central city neighborhoods. 

The majority of North Americans live in the suburban belts surrounding big cities. Altering the design, mindset and practices of suburbia–where people need to drive or be driven to get places–means that the focus on “green cities” needs to be expanded to “sustainable urbanism.”

Think of all that oil that has gushed into the Gulf. It’s primarily used to power the cars and trucks serving suburbia, not inner cities. Youth–particularly teenagers–should be at the center of planning for an alternative future that provides a way to burn calories, not carbon.

Drake High School is set in Marin County, which is across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Thanks to the Marin County Bicycle Coalition, Marin County is one of the foremost North American suburban locations promoting cycling as an alternative to automobile use for commuters, students and citizens. The county bicycle coalition helped Marin get selected as one of four communities nationwide as part of a federal Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program.

The Marin Bicycle Coalition implements a successful Safe Routes to School Program, with more than 50 schools and preschools participating countywide. After being started in 2000, the Marin program became the model for a national program that has spread from the West Coast to the East Coast. 

Central Marin County was the birthplace of mountain bike racing and, arguably, of the modern mountain bike itself. One of the originators of the mountain bike and a participant in the world’s first organized mountain bike races in the 1970s was Joe Breeze, whose son Tommy is a sophomore on the Drake team. Back in the Day, Joe battled it out with Gary Fisher on the trails of Marin County. Now Joe helps keep the Drake Team bicycles in racing shape, after successfully launching and selling a Marin-based mountain bike and commuter cycling company, Breezer Bicycles.

The mountain bike has become an important feature of not just recreational biking, but also  cycling for transportation. This type of bicycle, which has a heavier frame and thicker tires, is used for urban transportation worldwide, particularly where roads are rough. In San Francisco, mountain bikes provide upright bike riders greater visibility and afford more traction in crossing slippery cable car tracks and potholes. In Hanoi, people use them to haul construction material or carry goods to and from the city markets.

Kids and teenagers like riding mountain bikes and can tolerate being seen riding them, so they can still be thought of as being “cool,” at least until teenagers start driving. Now, however, the popularity of mountain biking at Drake has reached the point where cycling may even have more cachet.  

Drake High School is located centrally in San Anselmo, and many of its students walk or ride bikes–invariably mountain bikes or cruisers–from around town or from neighboring Fairfax to get to campus. There are numerous bike-pedestrian lanes and bike-safe routes that have been implemented in the area. Perhaps that’s why I see far more students commuting by bike or walking to Drake than I see doing the same to other Marin high schools.

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Drake students even go on field trips to neighboring towns by bicycle. Such activities reinforce the bicycle as a bonafide means of transportation for students, their parents, and for every driver that sees dozens of students riding together.

This past school year, mountain biking became Drake’s most successful sport in terms of enrollment, with 49 students in the program during the 2009-2010 season. Winning another state championship won’t hurt the club sport’s future popularity: the names of all team members will be displayed in the school’s gymnasium alongside its state championship rosters in basketball, baseball and other more traditional high school sports.

The mountain bike team’s coaches demonstrate for student riders trail and road safety, as well as etiquette, in addition to supervising a regimen of brutal conditioning. According to assistant coach Neil Doucet, riders climbed 130,000 total feet during the twice-a-week November to May team rides this year–more than four Mt. Everests in verticality. Still, no matter how exhausted, every rider provides right of way to other trial users, enthusiastically greeting them with a cheerful “Howdy.”

Bicycles of all types are becoming a major cultural force in the cities and suburbs of the United States. Economists are even tallying the resulting economic impact in communities where cycling is becoming a significant form of transportation. In Portland, Oregon, the leading US city for cycling, for instance, almost $90 million in cycling-related sales and services were generated in 2008, according to an Alta Planning study cited in Joan Fitzgerald’s Emerald Cities.

In places such as San Anselmo and Fairfax, where Drake students live, the popularity of bicycles also translates to jobs. With a combined population of about 20,000 the two towns have a bicycle co-op and five full-service bicycle shops, including Sunshine Bicycle Center, the official sponsor of the Drake Mountain Bike Team. 

Because Central Marin is such a strong magnet for mountain biking and road cycling, there is also a significant impact from “bicycle tourism” in local restaurants and cafes. The Gestalthaus, for instance, is a Fairfax cafe that features sausages, suds and indoor bike racks (see photo below) for its visiting riders.
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In terms of its greenhouse gas emissions, Marin County’s largest con
tributor by far is personal transportation
. The adoption of cycling culture and the growth of cycling advocacy is a leading wave that could help other car-dependent suburbs significantly reduce their contribution to global climate change, and reduce their addiction to oil.

My wife and I moved to the suburbs from the city just over ten years ago, with the proviso that we would be able to cycle to work and other destinations most of the time. We have been able to fulfill that wish. With the success of the Drake Pirates cycling club, meanwhile, our goal of seeing bicycles gain even more prominence in the lives of our children (who have been biking or walking to school since Kindergarten) has also come true.

With time I hope to see a nation transformed so that all that want to ride for fun, sport (Go Pirates!) or mobility, are able to do so without fear, limitation or social stigma, wherever they live.

Warren Karlenzig is president
of Common Current, an
internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is
author
of
How Green
is Your
City? The SustainLane US City Rankings
and a Fellow at the Post
Carbon
Institute
.

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Before the Flood: Community Resilience Notebook


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This weekend I volunteered to warn shopkeepers and
officials in my San Francisco suburb about dangerous urban flooding potential during
the next week.

Every Friday noon in San Anselmo the “flood siren”
(not disaster siren, mind) is tested. Within fifteen minutes of the last time
it blasted for real in 2005, at 3:30 a.m. on a Saturday, three to four
feet of water was soon gushing down the main street (see photo above) into
homes and businesses. People here are acutely sensitive to heavy rain and the level
of the town’s creek, since they are still trying to rise up from that cold watery blow
four years ago.

Up and down the California coast, metro areas
including Los Angeles and San Francisco, are experiencing a series of El
Nino-generated Pacific storms. Further inland, Phoenix will also take a big
hit. The forecasted 6-10 inches of rain over the next days will almost
certainly bring localized flooding and mudslides. Ocean storm swells will reach
20-30 feet
on some parts of the coast by Thursday, lashing roads,
infrastructure and housing. (Update Jan. 22: the storms this week luckily did not flood San Anselmo, but did cause heavy rains, some flooding and infrastructure damage throughout the state and Arizona, while also reducing the region’s drought).

1.16.10precip.gif

NOAA 5-day precipitation forecast from 1/16/10: small purple circles in California represent areas expected to receive 8+ inches.

How much of this weather and its impacts can be
directly attributed to global climate change, I will not venture. The coastal
and tidal flooding that is expected in California, however, will be one of the hallmarks of a changing climate. Another effect will be drought—which
California and the Southwest have been experiencing for three years–the flip
side of climate change’s growing precipitation impacts. Coastal
and desert urban areas in particular need to steel themselves for such a schizophrenic
future.

Leaving things up to “officials” to figure out disaster
plans is not recommended; true community resilience will require research, networking
and knowledge sharing within and outside one’s normal sphere. In my case, I think
I was able to plug a few vital holes that may have been missed.

Most store owners in San
Anselmo (pop. 12,000) that I spoke with were savvy about imminent flood danger.
Based on their experience with the New Year’s Eve flood of 2005, a few
shopkeepers had excellent information and resources: they referred me to online
creek-level readings (“anything over ten feet and I’m out of here,” one man said), and email alerts that can be sent to email or phones from Nixle.com, a national information mass customization service that localizes updates on disasters, road
closures and crime.

Nixle, for instance, has newly
updated postings
from the San Anselmo Police Department about potential hazards
for flooding and safeguards.
There’s even a local AM radio (1610) station dedicated to disaster updates for
the area.

But none of that seemed to be
enough to really prepare people. One friend, a council member from the
neighboring town that was also flooded in 2005, did not know about the severity
of the forecast weather when I chanced to run into him at a musical performance
over the weekend. He had me send him the forecast links from NOAA
showing him exactly how much precip is expected to fall.
He emailed back, “We’re trying to get our flood plain residents to batten down
the hatches. This should help.”

Other small business owners
that I spoke to were new to town, including immigrants. Unlike long-time
business owners who told me they were warned by the police (or that had vivid mud-damaged
inventory and moldy wallboard memories), the new shopkeepers knew almost nothing
about flooding dangers or where to get the free sandbags.

IMG_4487_2.jpg

Those who were around in
December 30, 2005, have learned that floodgates (above, white board) for each business offers the
best protection. In actuality, these are just rails installed on each side of entrance
door where a piece of plywood can be inserted as a barrier against the torrents
of water can come crashing against and under the front shop door (usually
glass). Gates work even better than sandbags, but sandbags will prevent the
glass doors from being smashed open.

The town and surrounding
communities, even the federal government, tried to take some larger-scale policy
actions after the 2005 flood, which caused almost $100 million in property damages
county-wide. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) developed a new local flood
risk map
based on the 2005 event, and insurers offered policies that residents within
the areas were urged to purchase.
An extensive engineering study of the region’s watershed is being made,
a $125-per-property flood fee narrowly passed a controversial vote, while creek debris clean-ups have become popular all-age volunteer events each fall before
the winter rainy season arrives.

Some houses have been rebuilt
and raised above the flood-prone region along San Anselmo/Corte Madera Creek. This
normally placid creek empties seven miles later into San Francisco Bay. High bay
tides back the creek up so that it can’t empty into the bay quickly.

cortemadercrk.jpg

San Anselmo/ Corte Madera Creek Watershed: San Anselmo is in center, San Francisco Bay, on right

Unfortunately, it doesn’t
take much time for San Anselmo/Corte Madera Creek (watershed in brown above) to back up from San Francisco
Bay and rise in the Marin communities lining its flood plain, since it is
surrounded by steep canyons that channel rainfall off nearby hills. Asphalt
parking lots, impermeable pavement and poorly planned development have also
increased the speed by which rainwater runs off into the creek. For instance,
when I checked creek levels online Sunday the 17th, the creek was 2.9 feet, but after heavy rains Sunday night
and Monday morning the creek was already over 6 feet. Flood stage is 11 feet (update 1/20/10: after heavy rain, the creek level went from 4 feet to 10 feet in matter of five hours, before receeding slightly) .

The irony of California’s
winter storms is that they bring needed water to reservoirs and mountain snowpack,
promising to reduce or temporarily end the region’s ongoing drought, which has
been costing the agriculture industry and some cities hundreds of millions in
lost revenue and in water purchases. Marin County last year was the first in
the Bay Area
to approve desalination from San Francisco Bay water, despite energy and marine environmental impacts along with a hefty $100
million-plus price tag
.

Not surprisingly, the state’s residents have a
love-hate relationship with their winter weather. To make the affair even more
volatile, climate change may be swinging the status from drought to flood in a
matter of a few weeks.

Indeed, California’s coastal
metros (along with the Gulf Coast, including Florida and New Orleans) may be
the first litmus test for how to adapt to the unpredictable excesses and
scarcities of a changing climate.

 Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally
active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author of
How Green is Your City? The
SustainLane US City Rankings
and a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.

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