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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Ends and beginnings
May 9, 2012 - 7:00pm

The city of Backboro, like many northeastern cities, has chronically aging infrastructure. A key element of our transportation infrastructure is fast approaching the end of its usable life, and the city parents (we used to say "city fathers", so I guess "parents" must be the current term) are doing a creditable job of planning for its replacement. 

But that's the problem -- they're planning for its replacement.  Their thinking is framed, in large part, by what exists -- what they're familiar with.  Like so many folks who live in a social environment which has become structured around its technological components, they now think about problems in a vocabulary determined by the existing (obsolescing, often originally inadequate or otherwise suboptimal) solutions to those problems.  How should we replace/redesign this bridge?  that highway?  the other intersection?  Studies are performed to quantify the existing demand (traffic), and to project future demand based on anticipated growth.  But no serious effort is made to ask what real function is being performed, whether the existing element (or the system of which it's a part) is an appropriate means of performing that function, whether more attractive -- even if radically different -- alternatives exist.

Transportation infrastructure is sticky.  I don't mean that it's complicated (although it's often that, as well).  I mean that a transportation infrastructure element designed and implemented today will likely be around for decades to come.  (Sometimes centuries -- think of Roman roads.)  So opportunities to rethink civic transportation systems are rare, but the end of useful life for a key element provides just such an opportunity.

Say "transportation system" around here, and most folks will think of the regional bus system.  It's no better and no worse than similar systems in other cities, but it's not really what I'm talking about.  The real transportation system includes streets and roads and bridges and intersections and traffic controls and trucks and cars.  Lots of trucks and cars.  It's a very loosely coupled, largely uncontrolled system, with no real owner but with a whole lot of stakeholders.  It's not an efficient system in terms of cost or energy utilization or people's time.  Much of it grew like Topsy, with little planning and less management.  By the time that planning and management were attempted, the bones had already been laid.  Change can be influenced at the margins, but change in the core is tough.

Except at times when key elements of that core are visibly crumbling.  Then change becomes inevitable.  And significant change becomes, at least, possible.

Transportation is a key enabler of everyday life in Backboro.  For many folks (although by no means all), the default assumption is that you can get anywhere from anywhere at any time of day except rush hour.  And even during rush hour, you can get almost anywhere from anywhere.  Fairly quickly, fairly easily, fairly inexpensively (although not nearly as inexpensively as it used to be).  Indeed, that's the overwhelming advantage of the de facto transportation system that has evolved here and in so many other American cities.  Most folks find that they can live where they want, work where they want, shop where they want, visit where they want, with little thought to travel feasibility -- just an acknowledgement of time required and the cost of gasoline.  But total transportation flexibility is a luxury, not a need.  And if we, as a community, are willing to trade away just a little of that flexibility -- even perhaps just the image of flexibility, not its actuality -- we can create a far more energy-efficient, cost-efficient, perhaps even time-efficient civic transit system.

Other cities I've lived in or visited repeatedly have transit systems based far less on cars and trucks than Backboro's.  Many -- perhaps most -- of their inhabitants don't even own cars.  And the ones who do, don't seem to drive them much.  Either way, everybody seems to get where they need to go.  Often, the trip takes no more time than driving would take.  And if you figure the total real cost per mile, driving becomes quite unattractive.

Now, I don't expect Backboro to suddenly sprout a comprehensive system of streetcars, bus rapid transit or anything similar overnight, but the current situation creates an opportunity to move in that direction.  Replacing current roadway elements with bigger, newer, safer but ultimately similar elements merely encourages perpetuation of the current transportation system as a whole.  But consciously deciding not to replace  -- or even just not to expand -- the failing components can start to shift the incentive scheme.  It can begin to decrease the attractiveness of using personal cars, at least for some trips.  And the money saved can be put towards creating an attractive alternative.  Or at least the beginnings of an alternative. 

And if an alternative transportation system were to start to take hold in Backboro, the effects could include different preferential living patterns, work location patterns, retail location patterns.  The effects on Greenback U would likely include decreased demand for student and faculty parking, easier (hence, greater) physical interaction with Backboro in general, decreased operating costs combined with greater positive local economic impact.

All of which sounds a little less unsustainable to me.


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