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American Convenience Culture and the Effect of Exclusive Personal Mobility

Written by Arian Horbovetz and originally published on The Urban Phoenix blog

In a 2017 piece, I wrote about the impact of “independent automobile transportation” on our community environments. To take it one step beyond the idea that we have built a nation around exclusive personal mobility, it’s important to acknowledge the devastating effects of our “convenience culture” here in the United States.

Let’s begin with the assumption that the most important lessons we learn, the most transformative journeys we take, and the most powerful experiences we have are rarely “convenient.” The things that make us better are usually the things that require us to dig a little deeper and find something in ourselves that makes us truly feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. While convenience is a welcomed privilege, what makes us who we are usually requires a modicum of effort, or self reliance, or shared effort. If this is not your experience, then this post may not be for you.

Comfortable Bus

For the rest of you that are still with me, let’s talk about the assumption mentioned above with regard to our communities. Do we make the hard choice to bike to work instead of drive in an effort to reduce pollution, make our community safer, and advocate for a more sustainable mode of transportation, or do we simply drive? Do we conveniently order from Amazon, or do we seek a similar purchase that might strengthen our local economy? Do we use Grubhub, or do we contact our favorite local establishment directly to ensure they get the most from every order? Do we use Uber or do we see if there is a public transit option that might get us to where we need to go?

European cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen are notorious for prioritizing less “convenient” forms of transportation in favor of bikes and public transit, which empower us and expose us to sociocultural diversity. The lessons learned via anti-exclusive mobility are the true soul-resurrecting elements that we can all benefit from. In other words, if we truly support the definition of strength through adversity, we must embrace the less convenient avenues of mobility, commerce and lifestyle.

And yet, in a country of perpetual chest-thumping, relentlessly championing the illusion of toughness and grit, we look for the closest parking space at the gym. We curse the driver that takes an extra second to make a left turn, delaying us during our commute. We berate the local business that doesn’t have the “in-and-out” convenience parking we ravenously crave. This America of “strength” is suddenly brought to its knees when we can’t find a parking space within a few hundred feet from our destination.

This is the sociological construct that is created when we over-prioritize the most “convenient” (and most exclusive) form of transportation. For example, of the 37 OECD nations, the United States has the second lowest gas tax behind Mexico, which has no gas tax. In fact, the US gas tax is almost exactly one-quarter of the OECD average per gallon. The lack of significant fuel tax in the US is an under-realized financial lubricant for the proliferation of the automobile as an affordable choice instead of the exclusive one. In essence, we have made it financially easier for people to get around using the most inefficient, unsafe and environmentally unfriendly mode of transportation this planet has ever seen.

Couple this with more than a half century of urban demolition, residential displacement and racially-diving highway creation, and you get a mode of transportation that is so convenient AND exclusive that few other modalities have a chance.

And it’s not just cars. It’s mega stores like Walmart that, ironically, we welcome into our rural and suburban worlds on the promise of jobs and inexpensive merchandise, when the reality is a monopolistic machine that pays unlivable wages and makes it impossible for small businesses to compete. The end result is actually a loss of American jobs and a culture that is built around a one-stop-shop solution that is highly subsidized and simultaneously damaging to local economies.

Services like Grubhub make it easy for consumers to order from local restaurants. But these third-party food delivery services can take up to 30% of each sale, creating a no-win scenario for restaurants. Choose to use Grubhub and have your profit margins stripped, or go it alone and receive extremely limited exposure based on the public’s lack of desire to look beyond their favorite apps to fulfill their cravings. Grubhub has quietly become one of the most powerful “pay-to-play” constructs in our local economy.

These are just a few examples of convenience culture and how this unsustainable model of commerce is slowly eliminating the chance for small businesses to thrive. The more we subscribe to the convenience economy, perpetuated first and foremost by the drastic over-prioritization of the automobile, the more we feed into our own undoing. Whether you’re a rural American who loves the convenience of Walmart, or an urban American who just wants to find the closest parking space in front of your favorite farm-to-table restaurant, remember that true patronization often takes effort. With this in mind, let’s be fine with parking a quarter mile away and getting some exercise on the way to our destination. Let’s pay a little extra to shop at our local market instead of lining the pockets of billionaires who are fleecing our small business cultures. Let’s look at the notion of what our American spirit really stands upon… the idea that if we all work a little harder and a little smarter, we can overcome the temptation of convenience culture and reclaim our community strength by doing what is more difficult.

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Rochester wants to get more residents on bikes

by Jesse Peers, cycling coordinator at Reconnect Rochester

“The bicycle is in many ways the easiest solution to a multitude of problems.” – Anna Brones in Hello, Bicycle

As a bicycle instructor, I love teaching bike classes and presentations in our area. (If you want to book a lunch n’ learn presentation for your workplace, library or community group, let me know at cycling@reconnectrochester.org). Before going in depth on any subject, I spend a few slides at the beginning highlighting the benefits of biking. It’s not enough just to tell people how to bike safely. You have to inspire them to bike in the first place. There are powerful financial, health and environmental benefits that accrue from biking. And although it only takes one of these reasons to get on a bike, you and society will benefit in a variety of ways for doing so.

My hope with this blog is not only to “preach the cycling gospel,” but to familiarize readers with Rochester’s goals and policies, particularly its groundbreaking Rochester 2034 Plan. As I’ve gravitated towards bike advocacy in recent years, I was pleased to discover that my hometown also sees the benefits of getting more citizens on bikes. The City of Rochester has many plans in motion to better our city and many of those plans incorporate getting more people on bikes.

Choice, equity & “complete streets”

In line with New York State, Rochester adopted its own Complete Streets Policy in 2011, in which it “recognizes that our streets should accommodate a wide range of transportation modes…Our streets are a reflection of our community…” According to the most recent US Census Bureau American Community Survey five-year estimates (2017), 25.3% of all households in the City of Rochester do not have access to a private vehicle. In some neighborhoods like JOSANA, over 46% of households do not own automobiles (Source: JOSANA Study). 

The City defines a complete street as one that “accommodates all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users and persons with disabilities.” Moreover the recent 2034 Plan expresses clear concern for “an overly car-dependent culture” and acknowledges that residents want choice when it comes to transportation.  “The City’s statement of support for these values helps set the bike community up to advocate for specific projects and improvements.

‘Justicia Urbana’ by Fabian Todorovic

Household & Society Finances

Each fall, the American Automobile Association (AAA) puts out an updated estimate of the average annual cost of car ownership. As anyone who’s ever owned a car knows, this cost goes beyond just paying for the vehicle itself: interest, insurance, gas, maintenance, registration and depreciation add up considerably. Though we can expect Rochesterians to spend less than the average ($9,282 a year for a new car), in a city where the per capita income is well below the national average, $6,000 or more a year to spend on a car is too big a piece of the household financial pie. By biking for some trips, Rochesterians can save serious money.

In addition to the financial burden cars impose on households, we also need to recognize that society loses money from prioritizing and incentivizing car travel. As our friend Arian Horbovetz points out so well, every form of transportation is subsidized. No form of transportation pays for itself. It stands to reason then that municipalities, especially those with limited funds in hard times, ought to prioritize infrastructure funding for modes of travel that are available to everyone, not just those who can afford to own a personal vehicle.

“It is pure poetry that a 19th-century invention is capable of solving complicated 21st-century issues.” – Mikael Colville-Andersen in Copenhagenize

As Lynn Richards, the President & CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism, told us last year in her Reshaping Rochester talk for the Community Design Center, downtowns with abundant, cheap parking have city halls that struggle to pay the bills. A frequent line from those administrations is “Yeah, [your idea] is great but we don’t have the money.” Vibrant downtowns use valuable urban real estate to make money, put a price on parking and incentivize other modes of travel. Next time you hear someone say good bike infrastructure is too expensive, remind them that “One mile of a protected bike lane is 100x cheaper than one mile of roadway” and that by prioritizing cars, they are prioritizing the mode too many residents can’t afford.

City documents and plans that support these values:

  • The 2034 plan asserts that “increasing the ability of residents to bike will provide residents who don’t own cars with an alternative to get to work or the store.” 
  • Rochester Bicycle Master Plan: “Improving bicycling conditions is a cost effective way of optimizing existing public infrastructure.”
  • Bike Rochester webpage: Increased disposable income can result in increased spending in the local marketplace, which would boost the local economy.
  • 2034: Vibrant mixed-use neighborhoods with strong economies “limit auto-oriented uses and design.”

Health

As Peter Walker points out in How Cycling Can Save The World, “the health incentives for cycling massively outweigh the perils…Every year about 700 Americans die on bikes, a figure that could and should be significantly lower. But over the same period at least 200,000 of their compatriots die from conditions linked to a lack of physical activity.” And don’t forget that “more Americans have died in car crashes since 2000 than in both World Wars.” 

Moderate biking “has been found to have an almost miraculous effect” on health, “in part because it is so easy to incorporate into everyday life…Cyclists don’t just get extra life years, they’re more likely to remain mobile and independent into older age.” A recent UK study found that bike commuters had a 46% lower risk of developing heart disease and a 45% lower risk of developing cancer.

City documents and plans that support these values:

  • Evaluation of Trail Entry Conditions and Recommendations for Improvements: The City of Rochester proudly promotes healthy communities and lifestyles. 
  • 2034:  Residents bicycling instead of driving incorporate exercise into their daily routine, which increases overall health.
  • 2034: The City wants to improve public health by making Rochester more walkable and bikeable
  • 2034: On-street bike networks allow residents to access to recreation, world-class trails and parks improves public health

Climate Crisis

UC Davis found that if only 14% of urban trips worldwide were taken on bikes, we’d reduce emissions enough to meet the Paris Climate Goals. This is so doable! If people used their cars for when the weather was bad, when the distances are too long and when there’s more than one occupant in the car, we’d live in a different world. If you only hopped on a bike for short solo trips in good weather, it’d make a massive difference.

By the way, any idea where the most polluted air is concentrated? Where the unhealthiest air is to breathe? It’s around our schools every morning and every afternoon. “Pick-up and drop-off times create clouds of invisible yet toxic diesel fumes” as buses idle.

City documents and plans that support these values:

  • In its Climate Action Plan, the City acknowledges the urgent need to “reduce vehicle miles traveled” along with “single occupant vehicle trips.” 
    • Transportation currently accounts for about a quarter of GHG emissions in Rochester. Policies and actions that make it easier to make trips by foot, bicycle, and transit, can help the community reduce transportation-related GHG emissions.
  • 2034: Installation of various bicycle infrastructure elements (bike lanes, protected lanes, bike boulevards, bike share system, bike parking/storage, bike maintenance stations) to encourage this cleaner, healthier mode of transportation.
  • 2034: Single-occupancy vehicles are detrimental to the environment…Motor vehicles are one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, alternate modes of transportation, such as walking, biking, riding the bus, or carpooling can greatly cut down on the environmental impact of traveling.
  • 2034: The more trips made by bicycle means fewer motor vehicles on the road, which decreases congestion on our streets, lowers the demand for parking, and decreases the amount of greenhouse gas emitted into the atmosphere. 
  • 2034: Bike infrastructure encourages cleaner modes of transportation
  • 2034: The more trips made by bicycle means fewer vehicles on the road, which decreases the amount of greenhouse gas emitted into the atmosphere. 
  • 2034: The City Department of Environmental Services is a bringing more green infrastructure to the city and is pursuing an aggressive plan to reduce Rochester’s carbon footprint.

Anytime we advocate for safer, more equitable streets and better bike infrastructure, we need to point to Rochester’s goals and plans and how the whole community will benefit from encouraging bicycling. And when City Hall delivers, let them know your appreciation!


Join Us!

Join us for a virtual screening of the inspirational Dutch film Why We Cycle on Thursday, September 10, 6:30 – 8:30 p.m. on Zoom. Following the film, there will be a live panel discussion with community leaders and advocates. We’ll use the film as a springboard to reflect on how we can get more Rochesterians on bikes. See event details and register at www.ReconnectRochester.org/streetfilms.

“The Dutch and their bikes are inseparable. It’s not a form of transportation, it’s a way of living.”Holland.com guide for visiting the Netherlands

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With Our Own Eyes and Lungs: The Benefits of Reduced Motor Traffic

Guest blog by Doug Kelley, Associate Professor, University of Rochester.

In my first few long bike rides this spring, I’ve been bowled over by the beautiful views. And it’s not like I’m visiting new places. I pedaled these same routes last summer, when I first came to Copenhagen for a yearlong sabbatical and was eager to explore. But never were the vistas like this! Now, the hills and buildings of Sweden, 10 miles across the waters of Øresund, are not just blurry shapes, but clear and distinct and colorful. Now, looking southwest from the gorgeous seaside bike path in Naturpark Amager, I can see the towns of Køge and Strøby across the bay, nearly 20 miles distant and never visible before. First noticing these fantastic vistas, I gave thanks for the end of the dark and rainy Danish winter. Then I remembered that visibility was never this good last August or September. Something else must be happening. That something is probably covid-19.

The coast of Sweden, bright and clearly visible across Øresund from a marina north of Copenhagen. Clearer air, improved respiratory health, and lower carbon emissions all come when motor traffic is reduced, as the pandemic is showing us. 

The pandemic is causing profound suffering worldwide, through death and sickness, through separation and hardship. I would not wish it upon anyone. The pandemic is also giving humankind a unique opportunity to see — firsthand — what our lives look like when motor traffic is significantly reduced. Few are driving, which means less air pollution, and we can see the improvement with our own eyes. It’s visible all over, not just on my weekend bike routes but in places like London, Delhi, Wuhan, and Los Angeles. My wife tells me her lungs feel better now as she strolls along formerly-busy roads. Back home, nitrogen dioxide emissions in Rochester are down 30%. NASA data shows similar trends all over the world. Social media is awash in before-and-after photos picturing how much better our views have gotten thanks to reduced motor traffic. Mount Kenya is spectacular. 

“The pandemic is giving humankind a unique opportunity to see — firsthand — what our lives look like when motor traffic is significantly reduced.

With those views come other important benefits. The micron-scale airborne particles that mar our vistas also wreak havoc on our health. They are the most harmful form of air pollution, penetrating deep into the lungs and blood to cause heart attacks and respiratory disease. One study found that for particles with diameters smaller than 2.5 microns, every airborne concentration decrease of 10 micrograms per cubic meter comes with a 36% decrease in lung cancer. Another study estimated that reducing particle pollution by just 1 microgram per cubic meter would prevent 34,000 premature deaths per year in the United States. So ironically, reduced motor traffic due to the pandemic may actually save as many lives as are lost to covid-19. That’s a speculation, but given what we know, entirely plausible. 

Moreover, the health benefits of reduced traffic tend to be greatest for the very people who are suffering most in the covid-19 pandemic. Air pollution links to higher covid-19 death rates and almost certainly plays a role in black Americans dying of covid-19 at higher rates than white Americans. Even aside from the virus, low-income people suffer disproportionately from respiratory diseases, including asthma. Substantially reduced particle pollution is good for everybody — and especially good for those with the most urgent health needs. 

Substantially reduced particle pollution is good for everybody — and especially good for those with the most urgent health needs.

Reducing motor traffic also comes with the obvious benefits of reducing carbon emissions and slowing climate change. The International Energy Agency estimates that greenhouse gas emissions will be 8% lower worldwide in 2020 than in 2019, mainly due to reduced motor traffic and airline travel. Climate change is a long-established scientific fact, and its extreme weather and eerily warm winters are now nearly as evident in firsthand experience as the vistas on my bike rides. A one-year, 8% drop isn’t enough to solve the world’s climate change problem, but it’s a step in the right direction.

A one-year, 8% drop [in greenhouse gas emissions] isn’t enough to solve the world’s climate change problem, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Clear views of the coast of Sweden, in the distance across Øresund, on a sunny May afternoon at the beach in Denmark. Holding onto our reduced-motor-traffic lifestyles would mean better health, lower carbon emissions, and more beautiful days like this.

Living through this historic moment, when we literally see the good of reduced motor traffic with our own eyes, I can’t help but wonder: What if we hold on to the good, and hold on tight? As social distancing eases and we venture out of our homes more often, what if we do it without so much motor traffic? What if we reboot our economy and jobs and schooling without ruining our own vistas and attacking our own lungs?

As social distancing eases and we venture out of our homes more often, what if we do it without so much motor traffic?”

The pandemic has taught us that for many jobs and in many cases, we can work from home just fine. The pandemic has taught us that some travel is more trouble than it’s worth. What if, instead of using the pandemic as an excuse for more pollution, we enact laws and regulations that clean our air? What if we go more places by walking and biking and public transportation? What if we build on our momentum? It would mean new thinking about topics like achieving social distancing on buses and trains. It would mean living in a new way. But the lifestyle adjustments involved are far smaller and simpler than the ones we have already achieved, surviving this unprecedented pandemic together. 

We can get started right now.

Here are a few ways to build on great work already happening in our region: 

The benefits would be huge. Cleaner-feeling lungs, fewer respiratory diseases, better quality of life, reduced chance of climate change causing harder times even than the covid-19 pandemic. And big, clear, beautiful vistas. I think we can do it.

There are many more ways to take action. Leave comments below with your own suggestions.

Read more about the Kelley family’s Danish experience in an earlier blog post: Copenhagen transportation: A day in one family’s life.