Saving the Earth one bicycle lane at a time: Active Transportation and the Environment

By: Jeremiah Asaka

Earlier this week I was privileged to attend Mid Ohio Regional Planning Commission’s 2013 Summit on Sustainability and the Environment. The conference was themed “Building resilience for a climate of change. “

The conference was segmented into three tracks: community, business and local government. All the tracks had sessions going on concurrently in the morning, mid morning and afternoon.

In order to get the best out of the conference I attended three sessions — one from each track. At one of the sessions, titled “Pathway to a Resilient, Energy-Efficient Economy,” I was pleased to see the contribution of the Voinovich School in fronting an energy-efficient-economy paradigm recognized by Dr. Fiksel of Ohio State University.  This recognition was done alongside that of Millennium Initiative and Ohio State University.

However, a discussion on active transportation really caught my attention. Active transportation is defined as any means of transport that involves the active involvement of one’s muscles, such as bike riding and walking.  According one of the panelists at the session titled “Active Transportation Is for Everyone,” active transportation has several advantages including, but not limited to, healthy living, reduced risk of obesity and heart disease.  As a panelist described it, “Walking and biking is a significant part of a healthy community.”

While active transportation is not a new phenomenon, its popularity as a central part of transportation has reduced over the years among most communities in the United States who prefer motorized transportation. The discussion at the conference centered on bringing active transportation back to its past glory. A major starting point suggested by one panelist was having every individual reserve short-distance travel for active transportation. For example, it was suggested that going to the neighborhood grocery store should be done either by biking or walking — depending on which one suits the scenario at hand.

Panelists at the discussion also shared experiences from different areas, mainly Chicago, Columbus, and Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Compared to Columbus, Chicago was said to be way ahead of the game with the city mayor recently mandating the construction and protection of bike and walkways on nearly all major roads within the city. This, one of the participant said, has attracted major blue chip companies like Motorola to the city because of the convenience such options offer to their employees. The City of Calgary was touted as a better model on which to base future active transportation plans for Columbus..

The session also addressed some of the challenges faced by those already engaging in active transportation. Some the challenges include unprotected walkways, limited walkways and bike lanes, and, as one panelist put it, “motorists who don’t know that cyclists don’t belong to the sidewalks.”

If the discussions that I listened to were anything to go by, there is a lot of opportunity in the realm of active transportation and any community that chooses to make active transportation a big part of its culture stands to gain a lot in this era of living with our means.

Lastly, the conference did not conclude without a stab at the climate change debate. I must say it is a great source of hope for me whenever I see such a huge group of Americans gather to discuss climate change as a real threat to their existence and try to find solutions that can augment their resilience.

One of the speakers at a lunchtime panel discussion on climate change ushered conference attendees into the now highly politicized debate. The speaker, Ben Gelber — an NBC4 metereologist — said, “Climate change debate has been politicized. And that’s unfortunate. We are better than that as a society.” In agreement with Mr. Gelber, I think the politicization of any issue is actually the greatest misdeed that we as individuals can ever proffer upon humanity. The politicization of the cause and threat of climate change is costing humanity and life on earth dearly. The sooner we all realize that the better.

Just to give a glimpse of how much cost we are talking about here, another member of the panel, Kevin Reardon of the American Red Cross, had this to say: “One dollar spent on preparedness equals four dollars spent on response.” Imagine that!

We had all better agree that climate change is costly, real and that we have played a part in propagating it. Planning early enough for any eventuality even as we work on mitigating our impacts on the climate is surely the way to go


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Around the globe: New York warns investors against climate change impacts as China’s environmental costs keep rising

This past week, New York became the first state in the union to warn investors about the dangers of climate change to investments. According to an article published in the New York Times, ‘the administration of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has started to caution investors that climate change poses a long-term risk to the state’s finances.’

As carried in the article, ‘the warning, which is now appearing in the state’s bond offerings, comes as Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, continues to urge that public officials come to grips with the frequency of extreme weather and to declare that climate change is a reality.

In part the warning notes that recent storms like Hurricane Sandy, “have demonstrated vulnerabilities in the state’s infrastructure, including mass transit systems, power transmission and distribution systems, and other critical lifelines… Significant long-term planning and investment by the federal government, state and municipalities will be needed to adapt existing infrastructure to the risks posed by climate change.”

The state, which is prone to storms because of its coastal location, is in the process of developing several coping mechanisms. For example, the government of Governor Cuomo has proposed a home buyout plan for those living in the flood prone areas. Such a plan will give the state an opportunity to reconsider the development of its coastlines taking possible climate change impacts into account.

Moreover, the state budget that lawmakers are expected to approve this week also includes a provision requiring some gas stations to be wired to accept generators that could be used in the event of a power failure.

While New York is grappling with climate change, on the other side of the Atlantic China is struggling with rising environmental cost attributed to explosive economic growth in the past decades.

According to a recent report of the Chinese Academy of Environmental Planning, which is part of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, ‘the cost of environmental degradation in China was about $230 billion in 2010, or 3.5 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product — three times that in 2004, in local currency terms.’

It is no doubt that China’s explosive economic growth has had enormous impact on the country’s natural resource base. Logic would require that the government reconsider its development model with the aim of accounting for externalities as much as possible. But this has not been the case. In contrast, all forms of pollution have continued to rise. For example, early this year it was reported that air pollution in north China reached record levels, well beyond what Western environmental agencies consider hazardous.

As if that’s not enough, recent reports pointed to the discovery of at least 16,000 dead pigs in rivers that supply drinking water to Shanghai, which has raised concern over water quality. Last week, China Central Television reported that farmers in a village in Henan Province were using wastewater from a paper mill to grow wheat.

In spite of all these impacts, the government is still focused on economic expansion without changing its development model, and it officially estimates that its G.D.P., which was $8.3 trillion in 2012, will grow at a rate of 7.5 percent this year and at an average of 7 percent in the five-year plan that runs to 2015.

I don’t know what the future holds for China, in fact, no one can precisely say what China’s future will be like. But if the country continues in its current development path, then your guess is as good as mine. I know the pollution is a concern to the Chinese government, but it is high time some concrete action was taken to address the rising environmental costs, which is now jeopardizing the quality of ordinary Chinese life.

Voinovich School understands importance of solving environmental issues

In recent years it seems as if natural disasters have become more prevalent on American shores, plains and country sides. Although the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and thousands of volunteers offered help after Hurricane Sandy slammed the east coast this past October, it seems like this hurricane was just one of hundreds more to come.

With mega-storms becoming common occurrences, the cleanup stage after Sandy almost seemed routine. For example, despite the shattered well-being of thousands of people and an outstanding financial burden, we’ve already “moved on” from Hurricane Sandy.

But it is important to ignore the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality when it comes to destructive forces such as Hurricane Sandy. It is especially easy for Midwest folks to send the storm to the back of their minds considering they don’t feel any direct effects. However, at the Voinovich School, we find it crucial to face these issues rather than ignore them.

The Ohio University’s Environmental Studies Program’s mission statement and purpose is “to equip students to understand and solve environmental problems, by integrating perspectives of biological sciences, physical sciences, social sciences and humanities.”

The part of the mission that sticks with me the most is the idea of understanding environmental events. No matter how many preventative measures we take, there will still be severe after-effects and destruction as a result of extreme weather. That being said, it is important to focus on causes of such disastrous storms.
Dr. Geoff Dabelko, Professor and Director of Environmental Studies explains, “While adapting to these new realities is key, it is also critical to ask and understand what forces are driving the troubling trends we see in extreme weather events in the United States and around the world.”

Whether the increase of mega-storms is a rising surface temperature or pure coincidence, students, scholars and practitioners, such as those at the Voinovich School, understand the need to further analyze extreme weather. If we fail to do so, I personally fear that storm by storm, we will lose sight of the negative consequences each one brings to our nation and those directly affected.

Hurricane Sandy, a storm responsible for thousands of flooded homes, razed neighborhoods, millions of power-outages and over a hundred deaths should not just be the next natural disaster in a line of many. Instead, it should act as motivation to explore alternative research on extreme weather and possible ways to hinder it. Luckily, programs such as the Environmental Studies Program are doing just this!

For more information on national and global weather changes, check out the National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee’s 3rd National Climate Assessment at http://ncadac.globalchange.gov/.