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A Naturalist’s Ode to Urban Density

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

I grew up doing a lot of hiking and backpacking in the woods of Alabama. Being outside connected me to a world that seemed more fundamental, more enduring, less corrupted by the mistakes of humankind. I felt empowered by the ethos of backpacking especially, that my own two feet could take me through the world from one beautiful place to another, and when I was gone, I would leave no trace, so others might enjoy the same beauty. I could forget daily stresses in favor of long conversations with friends, basking in sunshine and endorphins. I was (and am) a naturalist. I chose a college in the Appalachian mountains, and spent summers back in the Alabama woods, a counselor at Camp McDowell, quick to volunteer to lead kids on hikes.

Over time, my passion for being outdoors led to an idea that seemed surprising at first: for a naturalist like me, who wants to spend as much time outdoors as possible, the best place to live is not in the woods but in a densely-packed city center. Urban density allows me to live close to my workplace and commute by bike or public transportation, so I’m outdoors for an hour every day, routinely, without committing extra time. Urban density means there’s a small market a block from my house, a pharmacy two blocks beyond, a library within five blocks, a hardware store and supermarkets easily accessible by bike, and a huge number of restaurants, cafes, bars, and coffee shops nearby. In a city center, sidewalks and bike lanes and bus routes offer dense connections. When traveling to all these places and more, I can be outdoors, enjoying the same sunshine and exercise as on those Alabama trails, years ago.

Headed home from work on the River Trail, I enjoy fantastic views of downtown Rochester daily. (Credit: Doug Kelley)

Without urban density, neither I nor my neighbors — who I see often on sidewalks and porches — could benefit from so many amenities. If lots were bigger and residences weren’t arranged with as much density, our destinations would be pushed further away, often too far for walking or biking. In fact, many destinations would cease to exist. Markets and restaurants and shops are businesses that rely on having enough feet cross their threshold daily. Urban density puts customers close. Or, from the customers’ point of view, urban density puts businesses close.

A naturalist’s first instinct might be to live far outside the city center, near trails and hills and streams. Wistfully I can imagine myself stepping out of a house abutting Mendon Ponds Park, a favorite place to ski and hike and cycle, ready to start an outing without even getting in a car. But to gain that privilege, I would have to trade away countless hours of outdoor time enabled by my city life. Living by those trails, I’d be cooped up in a car every time I commuted, every time I needed groceries, every time I wanted a restaurant meal. RTS buses don’t go that far out. Altogether, that life would allow me far less time in the outdoors I love. Much better to drive to the trails and live in the city.

A favorite hiking destination at Camp McDowell was St. Christopher’s Pool, at the head of a canyon and beneath a waterfall near the edge of the property. But in those years, St. Chris’s was badly defaced, its rocks and water turned a sickly shade of orange by runoff from the coal mine upstream. The Rev. Mark Johnston, executive director of Camp, waged a legal battle that ultimately brought the mine’s owners to remediate the stream, largely restoring St. Christopher’s. Mark also reminded campers and staff often that though the mine owners were culpable for property damage, all people are responsible for being good stewards of shared resources, and we ourselves contributed to the damage when we used the electricity produced by that coal. It was a tough lesson, and an important one.

That lesson, too, leads naturalists to value urban density — because it seriously reduces our own contributions to the human damage of natural places. New York City has the highest population density of any large area in the United States, with 27,000 residents per square mile. New York City also has a vastly smaller per-capita carbon footprint than typical American places: in 2015, an average resident produced emissions equivalent to 6.1 metric tons of carbon dioxide, less than a third of the national average of 19. Likewise, an average New York City resident uses far less energy and produces far less waste than an average American. It’s no coincidence that urban density reduces carbon footprints, energy use, and waste. Density enables car-free transportation, which burns little or no fossil fuel. Density also makes residences more efficient, because apartments are insulated by their neighbors, and because smaller residences almost always require less heating and cooling. And as anybody who’s cleaned out their garage knows, having more space inevitably leads to accumulation of more stuff — not all useful!

Reflecting more deeply, the lesson of stewardship and the naturalist’s leave-no-trace ethos are fundamentally about equity, and urban density promotes equity, too. Beyond leaving natural places untrammelled and less-damaged by climate change, density makes healthy and pleasant lifestyles available to all, even those who never spend time in the woods, either for lack of interest or for lack of opportunity. Regardless of social and economic status, almost everybody can walk and bike, which opens a myriad of possibilities in a well-designed city center. Public transportation is more broadly affordable than personal automobile ownership. And density matters even more for people with disabilities, for whom nearby amenities are no mere matter of convenience.

Rochester, NY (Credit: Joe Wolf on flickr)

Obviously, Rochester is not as dense as New York City, but at 6100 residents per square mile, its density exceeds many American cities, including Austin, TX (3200), Cleveland, OH (5100), and even the famously bike-friendly Portland, OR (4800). Most of Rochester proper and some suburbs boast sidewalks and gridded streets, making walking and biking easier and more enjoyable. Gems like the Canal Path and River Trail connect pedestrians and cyclists to more amenities over greater distances. Regional bike infrastructure is being steadily improved and expanded. Many neighborhoods in our region are great places for the urban naturalist lifestyle.

Some of Rochester’s density was automatic, because the city predates personal automobiles. But now, building and maintaining people-friendly city centers requires conscious choices, good policies, and ongoing input from citizen-naturalists. Reconnect Rochester has made major efforts to encourage urban density and make outdoor city life more pleasant and equitable. The work continues, and you can help. For starters, Rochester’s zoning laws have put limits on density, but are now being reviewed for revision, so leave a comment supporting urban density. Urge leaders to implement and expand bike master plans. Nearly every local municipality has one, thanks largely to the Rochester Cycling Alliance (for example, see the City of Rochester plan). Or get involved with Complete Streets Makeover for hands-on projects making outdoor urban spaces more practical and beautiful. Get plugged in to Reconnect Rochester’s work so you can learn about opportunities to volunteer for hands-on projects, attend public meetings, sign petitions, and be part of the effort.

The tulip trees on Oxford Street are among the many everyday delights of my bike commute, made possible by urban density. (Credit: Doug Kelley)

In the end, my bike commute may not have the same grandeur as summiting one of the Adirondack High Peaks, but doing it every day makes it more important to my life, health, and peace of mind. On the River Trail in the morning, I see groundhogs and rabbits frequently, and also deer, turkeys, hawks, and occasionally a fox or heron. In the afternoon, I enjoy a grand river vista of the Freddie-Sue Bridge with downtown buildings towering beyond. For one precious week every spring, I revel in an explosion of color when the Oxford Street tulip trees bloom. And knowing that urban density not only helps me enjoy the outdoors, but also helps me leave no trace and allows many others the same benefits — that makes these natural experiences sweeter still. 

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The Books That Changed Me: Terra Nova & Green Metropolis

by Jesse Peers, Cycling Coordinator at Reconnect Rochester

In past blogs, I’ve mentioned how Reconnect Rochester’s ROC Transit Day inspired me to try getting to work on a bike for the first time. I’m so grateful to Reconnect for providing that initial inspiration. I owe further credit to Howard Decker’s blog which introduced me to Eric Sanderson’s book, Terra Nova: The New World After Oil, Cars, and Suburbs. If ROC Transit Day got me on a bike for the first time as an adult, Terra Nova kept me on my bike. When the only car I’ve ever had bit the dust while reading this book, I was so inspired by what I was reading that I donated my car to charity and haven’t had a car since.

I’m a bookworm concerned with climate change and on occasion I tackle thick, scholarly books. Maybe due to its length, Terra Nova isn’t for everybody, but to this day it’s the best non-fiction book I’ve ever read. I highly recommend it! In 2015 I was pleased to discover a great companion piece to Terra Nova: David Owen’s Green Metropolis, a very similar book which is shorter and more readable for most people. Together, these two books examine what got us into this climate mess and how we can get out of it. When one learns about our climate crisis, it’s easy to get discouraged. These books however offer a doable approach that leaves you feeling hopeful and encouraged. We can do this.

Lessons Learned

What both authors make clear is that a cleaner, sustainable future requires an investment and turnaround in three areas of life: energy, land use and transportation (and more generally, our habits). One can pay quite a bit of attention to the climate movement and really only hear about energy, as if all we need is a simple 1:1 substitution between gasmobiles and electric vehicles (EVs); between natural gas and solar. But it’s not that simple. As Evan Lowenstein of The Climate Accelerator points out in this recent blog, tech alone like EVs and solar won’t solve our problem. Part of that is due to energy load: “A million drivers plugging in their cars when they get home from work…would strain the power grid.” We’re simply not ready for that. Besides, fuel efficiency just incentivizes driving more. And we don’t need more traffic and traffic deaths. Status quo car-dependency and the enormous health and financial costs that go with it aren’t the way forward.

The other reason is because as Owen states, “the power we don’t use is more important than the power we do.” Take hot summer days for instance. Nowadays when we’re hot, “we adjust the thermostat rather than identifying the source of the problem and looking for a low-tech remedy.” Let’s instead do “what our parents and grandparents did: opening windows at night, to cool the entire house, then shutting the windows in the morning and drawing the curtains in the sunny rooms, to keep them from rapidly heating up again.” I’ve found that this works on all but the hottest Rochester days. In the same vein, the transportation power we don’t use is more important than what powers our vehicles.


“The transportation power we don’t use is more important than what powers our vehicles.”


Similarly, “we must significantly reduce the number of miles we drive, not merely replace one motor fuel with another one.” As Owen reminds us, “the main job of any car is moving the car itself.” Driving is the least energy-efficient way of getting around and society must start discouraging single-occupancy car trips by making it costlier and less pleasant (and by making the alternatives faster, reliable and more pleasant). We respond to incentives and disincentives. “In the long run, miles matter more than miles per gallon. A  car’s fuel gauge is far less significant, environmentally speaking, than its odometer.”

Perhaps your workplace is too far away to walk, bike or take a bus to. Okay, you’ve gotta drive. But what other regular destinations are near your home? (The grocery store, library, pub, kids’ school, etc.) Sanderson estimates that most people are willing to walk to destinations within a half-mile, bike or scoot up to 2.5 or 3 miles, and take transit to destinations within 5 miles. That’s a great place to start! Reconnect Rochester’s 20 Minutes by Bike map shows where you can get to from downtown Rochester in 20 minutes riding at a casual pace. (Stay tuned to our blog for more area maps to come!)

We must also “contract the distances between the places where people live, work, shop, and play.” This is where land use comes in. Mixed-used development and zoning changes are crucial. This does mean reimagining the suburbs a bit. Both authors make clear that the suburbs as we have known them in terms of car-dependency, can’t last. The societal and environmental costs are too great.

Finally, we’ve gotta deal with our overconsumption. “The average American single-family house doubled in size in the second half of the twentieth century” as family sizes plummeted! Rather than move every seven years to an ever-larger house farther away (only to fill it with more stuff and become even more car dependent), we would do well to develop a philosophy and “economy of enough” as climate activist Naomi Klein notes. Check out Rochester’s old trolley neighborhoods, where most lots don’t have original garages since residents used to walk to the end of the street and take a trolley every morning. Because today’s bus routes still more or less follow those old trolley lines, these neighborhoods have pretty reliable transit.

As you can see, whether it’s resisting the temptation to blast your AC all the time, biking to a destination, or choosing to live closer to work (Rochester remains one of the most affordable communities in the country to live car-free), Americans will have to change habits to meet the climate crisis. We’ve gotta go beyond focusing on what powers our stuff and reexamine how we settle and how we move. It’s important to note many of these lifestyle changes aren’t sexy. Rather than being high-tech and Jetsons-esque, many solutions to the climate crisis are old-school and therefore sustainable footprints and everyday life will look much like how our great great grandparents lived: That’s a good life!

Watch Saga City for more on the crucial role of land use and transportation in building a sustainable future.

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A Climate Solutions Blind Spot: Seeing Beyond Electric Cars

Guest blog by Evan Lowenstein, Director of Communications and Membership at the Climate Solutions Accelerator

Remember when you learned how to drive? You learned about the blind spots to the left and right of your vehicle, those spots where another car might be, hidden even from all your mirrors. That there might be things there you aren’t seeing. 

There’s another blind spot putting us at risk here in car-centric America: the one that prevents us from thinking beyond the automobile as we strive for climate solutions and a truly sustainable society.

Image Credit: State Farm on Flickr

The rise in concern about climate change in society and industry is encouraging, and happening not a second too soon. But the well-intentioned efforts run the risk of falling way short because of our perilously persistent belief that we can achieve a climate-safe, sustainable future simply by running our cars on something besides fossil fuels.

Transportation accounts for 40% of our climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions, and converting vehicles from fossil-fuels to more cleanly-generated electricity surely can reduce those vehicles’ emissions. But the way they are fueled is just one of many environmental, economic, and equity problems caused by our cars — and just one of the problems inherent in our prevailing transportation model and mindset. 

Thus, there is an inconvenient truth hidden in our blind spot: as we seek transportation modes and systems that are better for the environment, for the economy, and for equity, electric vehicles are the next-worst option to the fossil-fueled ones. 

Why Electric Vehicles Aren’t Enough

The switch to electric cars as a solution to climate change depends simultaneously on a massive transition to renewable energy, such as wind and solar, happening at an unprecedented speed. If we don’t transition to renewables as fast as we transition to electric cars, electric vehicles won’t produce any real progress on climate change. The switch also means a massive increase in demand on our already-strained electric grid; in addition to the cost of putting up that much renewable energy, we then have to upgrade the grid to carry it all.

And electric cars are still cars — machines that produce environmental impacts such as water pollution from tire and brake residues, and leaks of toxic materials from millions upon millions of compromised vehicles; pollution from extraction of materials needed and energy needed to make them; gargantuan fossil-fuel expenditures needed to transport them from manufacturer to individual buyer. In addition, the massive road and storage infrastructure (parking lots) needed to accommodate individual cars as a primary transport choice has titanic environmental impact: polluted runoff, biodiversity loss and roadkill from fractured habitat, etc. Having to maintain all this outsized, inefficient infrastructure forever also creates enormous financial challenges for governments, and prevents resources from being used more wisely.  

The Cost of Personal Vehicles 

Speaking of roadkill — cars also kill a lot of people too, upwards of 60,000 annually in our country from crashes and illness from fossil-fueled air pollution. And many people killed by cars are low-income and people of color, forced into walking or cycling in car-centric communities without adequate provisions for pedestrians or cyclists; and/or forced into living in places with the worst auto-borne air pollution.

Car-culture also creates and perpetuates more inequity like this. Cars are already expensive to own, maintain, insure, and fuel. Low-income people without the means to own cars are shut out from many needs and opportunities (jobs, education, recreation, culture) that are accessible only by car. In addition, most low-income people rent instead of own their housing, and even if they were able to access electric vehicles, they likely wouldn’t have easy access to charging. If the shift to electric vehicles makes car ownership even more out of reach for low-income people, the equity gap exacerbated by car-culture will grow even wider. 

Building a Multi-Modal Future

We must start seeing what’s in the blind spot–the fact that a switch from gas-powered to electric vehicles cannot be the primary push as we strive for sustainability. Instead, we must understand that the best car trip for climate and sustainability is not an electricity-powered car trip, but the absence of a car trip.  

Then, we must focus our planning and funding to make it easier for more people to transport themselves by bus, rail, bicycle, and foot. Note that an electric bus or train uses ten to twenty times less electricity per passenger mile than an electric car does — no matter how clean or dirty the electricity supply is, they are always that much better. And even if buses and trains aren’t electrified, they produce less overall impact than electric private vehicles as a whole, simply by transporting more people over less distance. Walking and bicycling for transportation — if done safely using adequate infrastructure provided for it — produces positive health benefits along with the environmental benefits.

Seeing what’s in the blind spot also means developing land and our communities more efficiently so that transit, bike, and pedestrian transportation modes are viable for a lot more people. Community design with this location efficiency in mind will also save energy, land, and natural resources, meaning that planning for car-free lives enables climate solutions well  beyond the transportation modes themselves. This location efficiency also makes it more feasible for car sharing and carpooling — putting more people in each car is a super-sensible and affordable climate solution as well. 

The hard truth is that climate solutions, sustainability, and equity cannot be achieved solely through intention, but rather through execution. And executing requires plugging all the key facts into our designs of policy and place. We cannot let this big blind spot — an overemphasis on electric cars — run us off the road to our destination: a cool, carbon neutral planet.

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Pave and Plow: The Next Standard For American Trails

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

I’m pleasantly surprised with the amount of trail creation that is occurring across the United States. Urban paths, trails from former railroad beds, and neighborhood connectors… people are hungrier than ever to explore a new pedestrian or cycling experience. And for those like me, the ever-growing network of trails that can potentially remove us from the dangers of automobile encounters is so incredibly vital.

But as always, I’m going to challenge our townships, counties and cities to think bigger. I’m not spitting in the face of real progress, I’m asking everyone, especially in our denser communities, to consider two standards with regard to trail creation, use and maintenance going forward.

Pave Your Trails

I am so proud of my home city of Rochester and the surrounding towns for making trail creation a priority. There are so many new trails that have popped up in our area, and it’s truly a testament to a handful of amazing people with great vision for healthy recreational use and sustainable transportation. But most of these new trails are unpaved “cinder paths.” While cheaper to construct, they are far less convenient for thin-tire bikes such as road bikes and fix-geared bikes. Furthermore, the new rage of electric micro-mobility (e-scooters, e-skateboards, etc.) has the potential to change the way we move about our communities. But most of these vehicles have small, hard, unforgiving wheels that perform poorly on unpaved surfaces.

For many who are reading this, the response to the sentence above may very well be “GOOD!” The pushback against electric micro-mobility is substantial. But my take is that anything that gets Americans out of their cars is positive. If you want to retain young people in your community, allow for the recreational and practical proliferation of electric micro-mobility. Build for a community that welcomes as many forms of transportation as possible. Only then will a mobility-progressive future be possible.

Plow Your Trails

This is a message specifically directed at northern states that receive significant snowfall. Creating trails that are unusable for 4-5 months during a year is, frankly, a denial of the potential for trails to be year-round public resources for transportation and community health.

Paved trails can be plowed easily, providing local residents a year-round outlet for exercise and safe mobility. In the Greater Rochester New York area, the Empire State Trail (Erie Canalway Trail) is partially paved, but goes unplowed during the harsh winters that can see upwards of 100 inches of snow. The brand new Highland Crossing Trail, which I happily take every day to get to work, is unpaved and unplowed, forcing me onto the busy streets on my bike during the winter months. Again, I appreciate my local governments for being proactive in creating a community resource. I do, however, blame a century of one-dimensional transportation prioritization in the United States that has created the belief that the only way to practically access jobs and resources in our community is via the automobile, the most exclusive, unsustainable and individualistic form of transportation available.

If we truly acknowledged the importance of inclusive mobility, we would readily pave and plow all of our trails, new and old. But as of now, we as a culture would rather see trail creation as a seasonal recreational nicety instead of a legitimate year-round alternative transportation solution. This must change with regard to the future of mobility in our country.

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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.