Archive for August, 2010

August 27, 2010

Green Transportation Design

By Nicole Isle

Brightworks Sustainability Advisor

Cities and towns of all shapes and sizes comprise a complex network of interconnected systems. Energy, water, transportation and material systems — they fuel, move and remove essential “nutrients” such as goods, services, and information, all of which flow through our cities and towns with remarkable efficiency and speed. As in a natural ecosystem, these nutrients flow to a hierarchy of users. At the top of the food chain are the heaviest consumers: buildings, freight, autos, and industrial manufacturing. In this interdependent ecosystem, it’s people who decide how those nutrients cycle through, but as we all know, we haven’t done the best job of figuring out how to make all of this transportation, flow, and cycling happen in a sustainable way.

Our cities and towns may be complex like an ecosystem, but they fail to truly function like one – for example, where waste from one system becomes food for another, and individual niches are interdependent and share nutrients to minimize energy use. In a biological system, these are just a few examples of how an ecosystem comprised of a diversity of biological and physical elements functions, and these ecosystems are our most inarguable showcase of true sustainability.

Traffic Jam in Italy

If an ecosystem worked this way, it would collapse. Photo via It's Knuttz.

The USGBC’s LEED rating system has guided the market to take steps toward the responsible design, construction and operation of buildings.  The latest version of LEED more heavily rewards projects that are constructed in urban areas where infrastructure, amenities, housing and jobs already exist. This gets essential nutrients like goods, services, and information operating in shorter, tighter life cycles – a good thing in nature, since a constant source of fuel is essential to growth.

Sustainable transportation systems enable people to move around and receive nutrients more efficiently in ways that minimize total carbon emissions and land use impacts. One transportation rating system that strives to measure benefits and reward performance is the Sustainable Transportation and Access Rating System, or STARS.

STARS  was conceptualized by the North American Sustainable Transportation Council (STC), led by Peter Hurley of the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT). The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (SCCRTC) has contracted with the STC to develop twelve STARS Project credits for potential application to their proposed 9-mile SR-1 HOV Improvement project in Santa Cruz County, California. The credit development process is being managed by Brightworks. The finished framework will best serve transportation authorities interested in comparing benefits and costs between design options, or to help inform on initial planning stages.

STARS especially suits planners who are interested in expanding transportation systems to include multiple modes such as bicycling, walking, bus, and rail. It will also help uncover the often hidden benefits and cost savings multi-modal projects can capture through improved access and reduced impacts to energy consumption and associated emissions.

Multimodal Transporation in Portland

Multimodal transportation in Portland, Oregon. Photo via Trailnet St. Louis.

STARS drives a team-oriented decision-making process using an integrated design methodology that begins at project inception. The effort brings together all affected stakeholders to collaboratively solve challenges in reaching common sustainability goals for the project. This builds commitment and community camaraderie, and is  necessary when embarking on a design process that aims to shift thinking toward more sustainable means of transportation.

STARS and LEED both speak to the need for embedding urban design and planning in whole systems thinking. Buildings cannot be truly sustainable without a supporting, sustainable transportation system. The STARS program is attempting to fill in another piece of the climate change puzzle by showing others how transportation systems can function more sustainably. The next step in the credit development process will focus on transportation land use impacts to ecosystems. If our cities and towns are to function like ecosystems and truly be sustainable, then the development of this credit might hold particular potential to uncovering how a STARS-rated transportation system should function. For example, it could explore how climate and energy conditions best inform on decisions related to access. By incorporating a region’s ecological energy potential (e.g. solar insolence, heat storage, and wind) as a design parameter, transportation planners would have a true sustainability perspective when balancing access and carbon emissions reduction goals.

The future wealth and resiliency of cities and towns can only benefit from more thoughtful planning of transportation systems. The planners and project teams that will be best positioned to reap environmental, social, and economic benefits will be those that design infrastructure that recognizes the inherent interdependency of transportation with other systems at play, and accept the notion that no one sector holds the full solution to sustainability. Rating systems like STARS and LEED help demystify what it takes to create more sustainable places for the greater public, and highlight the need for sustainable solutions that span the urban realm.

August 2, 2010

Frog Blog

Amphibians Smart.  Humans?  TBD.

That's Scottby Scott Lewis

Brightworks CEO

A popular urban legend maintains that a frog put into hot water will leap right out, but a frog put into a pot of slowly heated water will complacently languish to its unhappy demise.

While this modern parable for human folly has long been discredited by scientists – frogs indeed hop right out of  a warming cauldron – we humans, it seems, are a little less savvy than your average amphibian.  Consider:

On July 25, the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) reported that “[w]orldwide average land surface temperature was the warmest on record for June and the April-June period, and the second warmest on record for the year-to-date (January-June) period, behind 2007.”  The monthly analysis from NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, is based on records going back to 1880.

Additionally, a new NOAA analysis called “State of the Climate,” which looks at ten indicators of global temperatures, concluded that the past decade was the warmest in 150 years.  An excerpt:

“While year-to-year changes in temperature often reflect natural climatic variations such as El Niño/La Niña events, changes in average temperature from decade-to-decade reveal long-term trends such as global warming. Each of the last three decades has been much warmer than the decade before. At the time, the 1980s was the hottest decade on record. In the 1990s, every year was warmer than the average of the previous decade. The 2000s were warmer still.”

From NOAA's State of the Climate report (2010)

Congress Demurs

One might think this kind of troubling news might stir policy makers to decisive action.  The House had passed a solid energy/climate bill last summer (2009), and the Senate was driving a legislation introduced by John Kerry that would have created an economy-wide carbon cap.  But unable to muster enough support to insure victory for the Bill, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid let the legislation die in committee on July 22nd.  “We just don’t have the votes,” Reid lamented.  Ribbit.

In response to this juxtaposition of more alarming data from NOAA and congressional inaction, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote, “We’ve basically decided to keep pumping greenhouse gases into Mother Nature’s operating system and take our chances that the results will be benign — even though a vast majority of scientists warn that this will not be so. Fasten your seat belts.”

The remainder of Friedman’s column is full of some interesting and relevant information – I highly recommend it.  From Friedman:

  • The China Daily reports the country is set to begin domestic carbon trading programs during its 12th Five-Year Plan period (2011-2015) to help it meet its 2020 carbon intensity target.
  • ABC News recently reported that a “heat wave, which has lasted for weeks,” has Russia suffering its worst drought in 130 years.
  • A day before the climate bill went down, Lew Hay, the C.E.O. of NextEra Energy, which owns Florida Power & Light, one of the nation’s biggest utilities, e-mailed to say that if the Senate would set a price on carbon and requirements for renewable energy, utilities like his would have the price certainty they need to make the big next-generation investments, including nuclear. “If we invest an additional $3 billion a year or so on clean energy, that’s roughly 50,000 jobs over the next five years,” said Hay.

So the next time you hear someone demean our pond-dwelling amphibious friends, remind them that at least a frog knows when to get out of hot water.  As documented previously in this space, a renewable energy, stable-climate future is within our reach.  Let’s hop to it!

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